Capone (2020)

I’m not sure that Josh Trank bounced back from his career-imploding misfire Fant4stic (2015) with a better film, but he’s certainly returning to the scene with a more memorable & entertaining one. Trank’s misshapen Al Capone biopic stands alone in a genre defined only one other film to date: Venom (2018), by which I mean it’s a tragically bland nothing of a movie that Tom Hardy’s bizarro performance transforms into a riotous good time through sheer force of will. Trank wrote, directed, and edited Capone himself, so you think you’d be able to credit some of the film’s entertainment value to his guiding hand. Yet, his dialogue, direction, and editing choices are all so aggressively uninteresting that it’s a miracle any audience could sit through the entire picture without slipping into a coma. Tom Hardy alone is the source of that miracle, and it’s his batshit performance that transforms Capone into something truly remarkable, even if just remarkably laughable.

Capone covers only the final year of the notorious gangster’s life, which he spent under house arrest while left senile by neurosyphilis at the age of 48. Trank attempts to use this syphilitic madness as a device that allows the narrative to surreally drift through time & space as Capone’s mind wanders through his own memories, feeling immense guilt over the violence he commissioned at the height of his Chicago crime boss days. There’s no sense of purpose or immersive atmosphere to these drifts through Capone’s subconscious, though. When the movie’s over you’re left pondering if it had anything to say about violence, guilt, syphilis, Capone, or anything at all. The movie has no discernible reason to exist except in giving Tom Hardy the freedom to run wild in the titular role. Luckily for Trank, Hardy more than makes up for any & all filmmaking deficiencies by turning Capone into a one-man freak show. Against all odds, the film truly is a spectacle.

With none of the film’s stylistic or narrative elements being compelling enough to get in his way, Tom Hardy is given the greenlight to transform Capone into a series of Nic Cagian stunts. His demented vision of the titular gangster is horrifically grotesque. He mumbles incoherently in a garbled growl more appropriate for a talking trash can than a human being. He dresses in old biddy drag, fires pistols at alligators, belts out his showtunes from The Wizard of Oz, and fires a gold-plated Tommy gun at his friends & family while aimlessly wandering the grounds of his mansion in a soiled diaper. Admittedly, all these stunts were written into the screenplay, so it’s not as if Hardy ad-libbed the film’s saving graces. He’s just responsible for making them fun to watch in a bewildering sideshow act kind of way that we normally only allow Nic Cage to perform. It has got to be the most compelling, amusingly outrageous performance you’ll ever see where a main character pisses, shits, and pukes themselves for the entire runtime while staring directly at the audience with grotesquely bloodshot eyes.

I’m embarrassed by how much fun I had with Capone. By most reasonable metrics, it’s a terrible film, one that’s only dragged down by the eye-rolling decisions made by its commanding auteur. Why hire El-P to produce a score if his work is going to be so anonymous that the audience forgets that factoid immediately after seeing his name in the opening credits? Why cast eternally loveable performers like Linda Cardellini & Kyle MaClachlan just so they can sit around watching Tom Hardy do his thing? Why the fuck do you think the world needs a ~spooky~ rendition of Louis Armstrong’s “Blueberry Hill?” Who is any of this for? It ultimately doesn’t matter. All things considered, this is a much more memorable, entertaining, and overly ambitious take on the pathetic-mobster-geezer-regretting-his-evil-deeds story than the infinitely more competent The Irishman, so it really doesn’t matter how it got there. I would watch Tom Hardy shit his pants on an infinite loop if the results were always going to be this fun.

-Brandon Ledet

New Orleans Uncensored (1955)

The Prytania has been running an unofficial William Castle retrospective over the past few months as part of their ongoing Classic Movies series. That programming choice made a lot of sense around October, when Castle’s iconically kitschy team-ups with Vincent Price – The Tingler, The House on Haunted Hill, 13 Ghosts, etc. – where a perfect celebratory lead-up to Halloween. One Castle title just before that run stood out like a sore thumb, though, as it predated his infamous theatrical horror gimmicks and instead fell into a genre Castle isn’t often associated with. New Orleans Uncensored is a cheap-o, locally shot noir about corrupt shipping dock workers, much more in tune with films like Panic in the Streets than anything resembling the Percepto! or Emergo! horror gimmickry that later made Castle a legend. The director does find stray chances to exhibit his eye for striking, attention-grabbing imagery throughout the film, but for the most part his presence is overpowered by New Orleans itself, making the film more of a worthwhile curio for locals than it is for Castle fanatics.

Originally titled Riot on Pier 6, this film mostly concerns the organized crime rackets that had quietly, gradually overtaken hold of the second largest port in the U.S. Amazingly, it frames the suggestion that New Orleans government & business might be susceptible to corruption as a total shock; sixty years later it’s as obvious of a fact as the sky being blue. The docks themselves are portrayed as gruff working-class playpens where fistfights often break out en mass to the point where workers are recruited for professional boxing careers and assigned nicknames like “Scrappy.” This wild, bully-overrun schoolyard is controlled from behind the scenes by a few Dick Tracy-level mobster archetypes who tend to fire bullets instead of throwing punches, the cowards. We watch a naïve outsider who hopes to start his own legit shipping business at the docks get seduced by the power & convenience the existing mafia structure offers him instead; he then eventually helps the fine folks at the NOPD take those criminals down once he realizes the full scope of their corruption & violence. It’s all very surface-level, familiar noir territory.

The one distinguishing element of New Orleans Uncensored is the visual spectacle of its locale – a 1950s New Orleans backdrop that looks almost exactly the same half a century later. Whereas Panic in the Streets was a document of local faces & personalities, Castle’s film is actively interested in documenting the physical locations of the city like an excited sight-seeing tourist. Panic in the Streets was mostly contained at the shipping docks and backrooms that concerned its plot, while New Orleans Uncensored goes out of its way to capture as many of the city’s cultural hotspots as possible: Pontchartain Beach, The Court of Two Sisters, Jackson Square, French Quarter nightclubs, Canal Street float parades, etc. In one particularly egregious indulgence in sight-seeing, a couple shares a nightcap beignet at Café du Monde, claiming the ritual is “a traditional New Orleans way of saying goodnight.” It’s practically a tourism board television ad. Of course, as the title suggest, the appeal of this local sightseeing to outsiders is the city’s national reputation for sin & debauchery. The film’s plot about corrupt shipping dock companies getting their due punishment for their transgressions against social order is mostly an excuse for displaying as much sex, drunkenness, and Cajun-flavored merriment as the Hays Code would allow. That becomes a major problem in the snooze of third act when the tourism is sidelined to resolve the much less engaging mafia plot, but it’s fun while the good times last.

There isn’t much room for William Castle to show off this unique touch for attention-grabbing gimmickry & cheap-o surrealism while ogling “The Mistress of The Mississippi.” Outside an opening credits graphic where a disembodied hand stamps the word “UNCENSORED” on a map of the city and a drunken montage depicting an all-nighter of a couple partying until dawn in French Quarter nightclubs, Castle is fairly well behaved in his visual stylings. The closest the film comes to touching on his iconic gimmickry is the way the movie is presented as if it were a documentary instead of a fictional drama – bolstered by stock footage & news reel voiceover. However, that choice often reads as an Ed Woodian means of cutting financial corners more than some deliberate artistic vision. If anything, the movie does function as a genuine documentary, as its sightseeing record of a 1950s New Orleans is far more valuable & purposeful than its criminal conspiracy drama or its William Castle visual play. The history & personality of the city is far more pronounced than Castle’s here, and if the movie maintains any value as a cinematic artifact it’s in that local tourism.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 31: GoodFellas (1990)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where GoodFellas (1990) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 157 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “Not all good movies are about Good People. I also like movies about Bad People who have a sense of humor. […] Henry Hill, the hero of GoodFellas, is not a good fella, but he has the ability to be honest with us about why he enjoyed being bad. He is not a hypocrite.”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): “Most films, even great ones, evaporate like mist once you’ve returned to the real world; they leave memories behind, but their reality fades fairly quickly. Not this film, which shows America’s finest filmmaker at the peak of his form. No finer film has ever been made about organized crime – not even The Godfather, although the two works are not really comparable.” -from his 1990 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

“What Scorsese does above all else is share his enthusiasm for the material. The film has the headlong momentum of a storyteller who knows he has a good one to share. Scorsese’s camera caresses these guys, pays attention to the shines on their shoes and the cut of their clothes. And when they’re planning the famous Lufthansa robbery, he has them whispering together in a tight three-shot that has their heads leaning low and close with the thrill of their own audacity. You can see how much fun it is for them to steal.” -from his 2002 review for his Great Movies series

Whenever pressed for my Favorite Movie of All Time, my answer tends to flip flop between Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights & Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas. Neither answer is especially bold or indicative of my general tastes. They’re both massively popular titles with wide appeal. Still, they’re the two films I revisit most frequently and the two I think best exemplify everything cinema can be: terrifying, erotic, hilarious, gorgeous, musical, etc. Arriving years later than GoodFellas, Boogie Nights certainly pulled a lot of influence from Scorsese’s gangster magnum opus: absurdly complex tracking shots, sensual immersions in pop music indulgence, a narrative structure that posits the 1970s as a glorious time of hedonistic excess & the 1980s as dark times of cocaine-fueled downfall, etc. That more or less makes GoodFellas the birthplace of what I love most about modern cinema and, thus, leaves me no choice but to shamelessly gush without criticism whenever prompted to discuss it.

Scorsese reportedly wasn’t interested in making another organized crime picture after the early effort Mean Streets already covered what he wanted to say on the subject. Reading the Nicholas Pileggi book Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family on the set of The Color of Money completely turned him around on the idea. The book’s sweeping, decades-spanning look at how the Italian mafia operated on both a generational/cultural level and on a day-to-day operations basis inspired him to want to tell a mafia story that plays “like a two and a half hour trailer.” The result is a lyrical sense of pacing that both moves from the 50s to the 80s with the patience of a flood and freezes still for intimate moments of violence & tension when the situation calls for it. I could easily see that same “two and a half hour trailer” Scorsese quote being turned around on the film as an insult, but for me it’s pure pop cinema bliss. GoodFellas evolves the French New Wave influences that excited New Hollywood auteurs in the early 70s into an entirely new, powerful beast. It sets in motion a near-undetectable shift in cinematic language that feels Citizen Kane-esque in the way it wasn’t immediately appreciated, but informed everything that followed in its wake.

Although GoodFellas follows dozens of characters over the span of four decades, it’s solidly anchored by its narrator & POV character Henry Hill, modeled after a real life mobster by the same name. The story begins with adult Hill (played by a career-high Ray Liotta) opening the trunk of a car to stab & shoot a wriggling victim inside who had been annoying him & his two closest cohorts (played by Robert De Niro & Joe Pesci) with their pathetic cries for help. As this motley crew mercilessly ends their victim’s life, Liotta intones, “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” Scorsese does almost too good of a job of communicating exactly why someone would want to join the violent world of organized crime. The film follows Hill from his powerless youth as the son of Irish & Italian immigrants to his godlike power as an adult gangster with two mistresses and an endless network of untouchable killers who have his back. Scorsese also gets across the pitfalls of burning that fast & bright, as well the ugliness of a life in crime in general: the murders, the drug addiction, the paranoia of police scrutiny, the casual racism, etc. Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy may attempt a more ambitious summation of mafia culture in its endless scope & runtime, but the way GoodFellas boils that same subject down to its most essential pleasures & tragedies in just over two hours is far more miraculous in both its efficiency & its moment to moment effect.

Scorsese declared that he wanted to model GoodFellas‘s overall style after the New Wave classic Jules and Jim, especially in its narration, quick cuts, freeze frames, and wide variety in setting. He was deliberately attempting to overwhelm his audience with the intoxicating allure & apocalyptic downfalls of a life in crime. This effect can be achieved with the odd power of the tracking shot from NYC streets to the front row table at the Copacabana nightclub. It can be built through a thirty minute exercise in Hitchcock-flavored tension as narcotics officers close in on Henry Hill’s drug-running empire, It can also burst out quickly in a pop music montage that reveals an extensive line of dead characters disposed of without ceremony. From the giallo purples & reds of the nightclub lighting to Liotta’s constant narration commanding the pace with meticulous control, GoodFellas feels like Scorsese’s attempt to throw everything he knows about cinema at the screen in every single shot. Much like its well-balanced soundtrack (featuring artists like The Ronettes, The Shangri-Las, Cream, and The Rolling Stones), GoodFellas feels like a Greatest Hits collection of cinematic techniques, perfectly curated so the album only feels more charming on every revisit instead of making you long for the sources it borrowed from.

Besides its eclectic, immaculate approach to craft behind the camera, GoodFellas also boasts some of cinema’s all-time best dramatic performances. As the centerpiece, Liotta obviously commands a lot of attention, especially with his maniacal laugh & coldly brutish readings of lines like, “Everybody takes a beating sometimes,” and “Fuck you, pay me.” Although she isn’t afforded nearly as much time in the spotlight, Lorraine Bracco’s role as Henry’s wife, Karen Hill, is occasionally allowed to overpower his perspective with her own narration. She does a great job of getting across the allure of being married to a mobster (“I gotta tell the truth, it turned me on,”) as well as directly vocalizing Scorsese’s intent to leave the audience feeling dizzy or drunk. Mobsters with names like Frankie No-Nose & Jimmy Two-Times round out the rest of the cast, but only De Niro’s mentor-turned-bully & Pesci’s loose cannon hothead threaten to steal the show. Pesci, in particular, lends credence to Scorsese’s claim that in-character ad-libs guided rewrites of the script. Whether delivering lines like “Fuck ’em! Fuck ’em in the ear,” or lightly ribbing his mother (played by Scorsese’s real life mother Catherine Scorsese) over her mediocre painting skills, Pesci feels like he fully embodies the character. In fact, the entire cast feels like they were born to play their respective roles, which might help explain why (most of) their careers have felt relatively lackluster since.

Although it certainly traffics in populist cinema waters, GoodFellas has a natural divisiveness to it, possibly in part because of its omnipresent narration & deliberately overwhelming pace. The film feels now as if its legacy as an all-time classic is solidified, but there were multiple walkouts during its test screenings & the only Oscar it won from its six (mostly technical) nominations was for Joe Pesci’s performance. I do not have the critical ability to step outside of myself and consider its flaws. My admiration for it only grows in every revisit and I love getting swept up in its crushing flood of pure cinema bliss. The only film I could maybe claim better delivers on its exact formula is Boogie Nights, but that’s a point I flip flop on as often as I revisit either work individually. GoodFellas might just be the best the medium has to offer.

Roger’s Rating (4/4, 100%)

Brandon’s Rating (5/5, 100%)

Next Lesson: The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979)

-Brandon Ledet

The Legitimacy of Paranoia in Mikey and Nicky (1976) & Mickey One (1965)

One of the most immediately striking aspects of Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky is the way the film’s in media res introduction completely disorients anyone trying to get a grip on its overall narrative. The film opens with a strung out criminal played by John Cassavetes bunkered down in a shit hole motel, deathly paranoid that someone is out to kill him. He brings in an old friend, played by Peter Falk, to help him escape this fate and to sober up enough to not die at his own hands from the side effects of nihilistic alcoholism. As time goes on in the film, the audience is gradually clued in to the fact that this fear of assassination is very much legitimate. Cassavetes’s anti-hero (emphasis on the “anti”) is indeed being hunted down by the mafia for a past offense, no matter how often his only friend in the world lies to his face by telling him everything’s going to be okay and that he’s just being paranoid. I got the feeling while watching this story unfold that I had recently seen a similar scenario play out in another ramshackle organized crime picture from the New Hollywood era, its paranoia being especially reminiscent of the early scenes in Cassavetes’s motel hideout.

Arthur Penn’s forgotten surrealist crime thriller gem Mickey One preceeds his New Hollywood kickstarter Bonnie and Clyde by a couple of years, but also stars Warren Beatty and attempts to marry French New Wave sensibilities to a new flavor of American Cinema just like that bonafide classic. In the film, Beatty plays a stand-up comedian who finds himself at odds with the organized crime syndicates who run the nightclubs that employ him as an entertainer. Convinced that he’s in immediate danger of having his life ended and his body anonymously dumped in a junkyard, Mickey changes his identity and attempts to hide out doing menial labor until the spotlight calls his name so loudly that he cannot resist and again risks being assassinated to pursue his craft. Unlike in Mikey and Nicky, however, this paranoia is never explicitly justified in the film by outright threats from the mob. We’re never even sure if Mickey is being targeted by the mob, let alone why. It could very well be all in his head, as it’s only represented onscreen through a few side glances from menacing strangers, a beating in a dark alley way, and the intense scrutiny of stage lights during an existentially terrifying audition sequence. It’s all very abstract in comparison to the real world that represented in May’s film, despite where that one starts.

A significant difference between the depiction of paranoia in Mikey and Nicky & Mickey One might be tied to their positions within the New Hollywood movement. Mickey One was a precursor to New Hollywood sensibilities, still holding on tight to the art film abstraction that guided the French New Wave films that inspired the movement’s young auteurs. Mikey and Nicky arrived a decade later, joining the New Hollywood fray long after crime films like The French Connection and Mean Streets had already mapped out what an artful organized crime picture would look like in that era. What’s interesting to me (along with the odd similarity in the films’ titles) is the way those two sentiments overlap at the beginning of Mikey and Nicky. We begin the film not fully convinced that there’s any organized threat of assassination at all, as if we’re just listening to Cassavetes’s fears like the ravings of a mad man. That intangible threat of baseless paranoia and question of legitimacy carries throughout Mickey One, which easily matches Mikey and Nicky in drunken, ramshackle energy, but feels much more adrift & untethered to the real world. Even though I heartily believe Mikey and Nicky is the better film for that sense of grounded, real world consequences. I greatly respect the way Mickey One was able to sustain that feverish paranoia for the length of an entire picture. I suspect the two titles would make for an exciting double feature if paired together, but be prepared to spend most of the evening checking over your shoulder or else you might get whacked.

For more on May’s Movie of the Month, Elaine May’s small scale mafia drama Mickey and Nicky, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at its closest Scorsese comparison point, Mean Streets (1973).

-Brandon Ledet

Low Level Crime and New York City Grime in Mean Streets (1973) & Mikey and Nicky (1976)

In our initial conversation about May’s Movie of the Month, the 1976 Elaine May mafia pic Mikey and Nicky, Alli wrote about how the modern organized crime picture as a genre typically is associated with large ensemble casts, gigantic budgets, and sweeping themes about the Italian immigrant experience in modern America. That does ring especially true if you think of Coppola’s Godfather trilogy and Scorsese’s Goodfellas, one of my all-time favorite films, as typifiers of the genre, as you likely should. Mikey and Nicky has much smaller concerns than either of those grand, ambitious works. Instead of attempting to capture the entirety of the mafia’s rise and fall in America, from poverty to opulence to back again, May’s film focuses on the small players who are but individual pixels in that much larger picture. The titular characters of her film, played by John Cassavetes & Peter Falk, are low level nobodies, merely necessary annoyances to their mob bosses, who treat them with open contempt. Staged over the course of a single night, the film’s minor drama reaches its lowest point when the two characters, despite essentially being each other’s only friends in the world, fight over a broken wrist watch in the dimly lit, visibly disgusting streets of pre-Giuliani NYC. There’s nothing grand or glamorous about the organized crime players in May’s film. They’re the lowlifes who’re left to fight over their mob bosses’ crumbs. That sentiment wasn’t entirely absent from Scorsese’s mafia pictures, however, even if his work in Goodfellas later represented Mikey and Nicky‘s aesthetic opposite. Three years before May’s film made it out of editing room post-production Hell, Scorsese had delivered a spiritually similar gangster film, one with common themes about small players fighting over pittances and with a common New York City grime.

I often dismiss Mean Streets as a kind of trial run for what Scorsese would later achieve in Goodfellas, but there’s a distinctly punk, lowkey charm to the film that makes it a rewarding watch in its own right. Harvey Keitel stars as a low level numbers runner who struggles with then-risque topics like interracial romantic desire & atheistic religious doubt. What really creates conflict for him as a low level mafia type, however, is the idiotic proto-punk antics of a life long friend, played by Robert De Niro. Living fast & loud, De Niro’s Falstaffian foil leaves a trail of financial debts & bruised egos wherever he goes, a mess Keitel’s troubled anti-hero often finds himself having to clean up. The dynamic of Mikey and Nicky is more or less the same, with its titular, brotherly lowlife criminals finding themselves at odds because one of them brings hateful scrutiny through his bratty, bridge-burning hedonism. With minuscule budgets & then-unproven directors, both films never had much of a chance to touch the more grandiose mafia stories of The Godfather or Goodfellas. The keep their scopes as small as possible, building tension in the betrayals and petty disagreements between their individual sets of low level criminal fiends. There’s something inherently tragic & pathetic about watching these crime world nobodies butt heads over minuscule debts & mafia etiquette while the higher-ups profit off their violence offscreen. By keeping their stories small & highly specific, both films do a great job in their own way of exposing a larger truth about the world of organized crime, if only by inference. Mikey and Nicky keeps things especially focused & streamlined, playing almost like a two-man stage play for long stretches, but Mean Streets is similarly dedicated to profiling the minor tragedies of low level criminals.

Besides their shared indulgence in minor crime world tragedy, Mean Streets & Mikey and Nicky are also both great snapshots of New York City grime. Scorsese’s reputation as a master of capturing 70s NYC in all of its sleazy glory might be more closely associated with Taxi Driver, which is a film more or less about the subject, but Mean Streets feels almost more authentic for using 70s NYC as a backdrop & a playground instead or a focal point. Keitel & De Niro’s crime-ridden tour of the Old New York is a great atmospheric measurement of the underbelly sleaze and working class angst that would soon lead to the city’s punk rock boom in just a few trips around the Sun. Mikey and Nicky feels even more authentic in its grimy New York City tourism, since it pulls an all-nighter, tearing through NYC street lights past an endless parade of barroom cretins, urban graveyards, and seedy late night cinemas. The New York City portrait captured by these two films a duo is of a city that’s long gone, cleaned up & policed into oblivion. Both films almost function as historical documents in this way, but more importantly, their shared New York City grime is an essential element in their bottom of the barrel crime world tragedies. Scorsese & May’s directorial styles were noticeably disparate in pulling off their minor New York City crime stories, with Mean Streets reaching for the pop music sleekness later perfected in Goodfellas & Mikey and Nicky luxuriating in the rough exploitation film looseness off handheld cameras & improvised dialogue. Together, though, they represent a small scale version of what we’re used to seeing in our mafia media, with more individualized stakes and a decisively punk rock attitude. I believe May made the better film in this pairing, but both entries are worthwhile for very similar reasons.

For more on May’s Movie of the Month, Elaine May’s small scale mafia drama Mickey and Nicky, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Mikey and Nicky (1976)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Alli made Boomer, Britnee, and Brandon watch Mikey and Nicky (1976).

Alli: Organized crime has a long history in film. The oldest surviving gangster film is from 1906. When most people think about mob movies, they probably think to films packed with explicit violence, or they think Coppola or Scorsese, whose films feature huge ensemble casts and wholly explored backstories and plots. Many of these films intricately lay out the inner workings of crime families, often with socioeconomic criticism about the treatment of immigrants in America.  But Mikey and Nicky doesn’t really do any of that. The violence is implied. The cast consists of just 20 people. It’s just a peek into a very specific event and more about betrayal than any political critique. Given that The Godfather came only 4 years before, it’s probably a better approach to break the mold entirely than covering all the same ground again.

Having two characters make a manic dash around New York is still a bold move. There’s so much potential to have it all go wrong, but I can’t think of two people better cast opposite one another.  The movie depends on their interactions. Luckily, they’re both masters. Peter Falk has his matter of fact, levelheaded manner and John Cassavetes plays a frenetic jerk. They’re just fun to watch together. Elaine May knew this. Most of the movie was improvised. She captured hours and hours of footage of just Peter Falk and John Cassavetes talking. There was 1.4 million feet of film by the end, which is nearly 3 times as much as Gone with the Wind! The result is a really great movie with an amazingly natural flow, but it took more than two years to edit, which was way over the deadline. After it was reluctantly released, she didn’t work behind the camera for over a decade. Having also had similar problems with A New Leaf, I wonder if her misunderstood genius would have fared better now in the era of digital.

May’s writing is so smart and wonderful. It’s important that dialogue in a movie like this really flows. It’s tense and fast, but also has such moments of tragic humor. Rather than solely focus on the chase and Nicky’s ploys to outsmart pursuers, the relationship between him and Mikey is really developed. I know it’s hard to like or even have empathy for an asshole like Nicky, but in a way, I was still rooting for him. Brandon, did you have sympathy for Nicky?

Brandon: The way we’re introduced to Peter Falk & John Cassavetes’s titular gangsters is unconventional for any movie, let alone a mafia piece, and completely disoriented my sympathies as an audience. The film opens with Nicky strung out & paranoid in a motel room, dying of a stomach ulcer he’s drank himself into. Mikey comes to his rescue, feeding him pills and half & half to alleviate the ulcer, doing his best to calm down what is eventually revealed to be his life long friend by assuring him that, contrary to his paranoia, there is no one out to kill him. Our relationship with Nicky is shaky at that point. Cassavetes plays Nicky with the wild-eyed abandon of a man in the middle of a days-long bender, so it’s easy to keep an emotional distance from the character while aligning sympathies with Mikey instead, a calming presence who sings lullabies, spoon-feeds medicine, and bumbles through life with Falk’s trademark feigning of adorable, cross-eyed befuddlement. Once Nicky’s paranoia of being hunted by the mob is confirmed as legitimate, however, and it’s revealed that Mikey’s helping the mafia arrange his supposed friend’s execution, our sympathies swap and we turn on Mikey for the betrayal.

Sympathy with Nicky doesn’t last long, though. He quickly turns out to be a racist, misogynist asshole who beats women & starts bar fights just to inflate his ego & stave off his boredom. By the third act, when Mikey & Nicky reach their lowpoint fighting over a broken wrist watch in the middle of a city street, I had lost any concern over either of their lives. Over the course of a single night, both characters manage to expose themselves as low-level scumbag criminals without a decent bone in either of their bodies, which is a wild ride considering where the whole mess started. I’ll even admit that Britnee & I were openly, verbally cheering for Nicky’s death by the time their story came to a close.

I’m fascinated by Elaine May’s storytelling process here, especially after hearing Alli say the film was put together in the editing room. The dialogue has such a tight, pointed feel to it, as if the screenplay were written for the stage, so it’s mind-blowing to learn that this was constructed after-the-fact like a sprawling, improv-based Apatow comedy. Besides the storytelling style, I was also struck by how well May captured the dirty, pre-Giuliani era of NYC, the type of New York we’re used to seeing in early Scorsese pictures like Mean Streets & Taxi Driver. The late-night setting, funky blaxploitation soundtrack, guerilla-style handheld camera work, and genuine background characters of real life barroom drunks & creeps all afford the film an authentic, unnerving New York City grime. The only film I can think to compare it to in terms of narrative structure & visual craft is the recent release Tangerine, which gives a whirlwind tour of L.A. sunshine similar to the way Mikey and Nicky tears through NYC streetlights. With those two films being released four decades apart and Scorsese’s most similar contemporary works being praised at the time for being the cutting edge, I think it’s fair to say May was in some ways ahead of her time, even if her basic visual aesthetic resembles a general 70s exploitation cinema aesthetic.

I’m embarrassed to admit that in our third year of organizing these Movie of the Month conversations, Elaine May is the first female director we’ve covered here. With a couple dozen titles from plenty of dudes behind us, that’s more than a little pathetic, but I do appreciate that we got the ball rolling for a corrective with someone who obviously has such a distinct, blunt filmmaking & storytelling style. Britnee, is May’s directorial work something you took particular notice of while watching Mikey and Nicky or did the two dialogue-intensive performances from Falk & Cassavetes fully distract you from what she was doing behind the camera?

Britnee: Mikey and Nicky, which I still accidentally call Mikey and Ikey or Micky and Nicky, is unlike any movie I’ve ever seen. It reminded me more of an intimate play (I got some Rosencrantz and Guidenstern Are Dead vibes), so I’m not surprised to find out that improv played a huge part with our two main characters. As Alli stated earlier, the flow of Mikey and Nicky’s dialogue was so natural. Watching the two characters interact with each other was mesmerizing. At first, I thought that Nicky was hallucinating and Mikey was his lover just playing along with his “episode.” In no way did I expect this film to be a gangster flick. What a surprise! Nicky wasn’t losing his mind, he was just an complete asshole that was scared of being murdered by his mob boss.

Something that really did stick out for me was the film’s directorial style. The hazy, voyeuristic shots of Mikey and Nicky walking the dark streets of New York are so damn beautiful, but it’s the way that May captures the good, bad, and ugly of her two main characters. Mikey’s heavy heart due to betraying his life long friend and Nicky’s abrasive behavior that seems to grow with his fear of being whacked are two major elements that are highlighted by May’s directing. The audience can’t help but feel sympathy for both characters at some point, but ultimately, both are horrible people. Creating that sort of love/hate relationship with characters like Mikey and Nicky seems almost impossible, but with May’s smart directing style, she really gets the job done.

A film focused mainly on the relationship between two male friends over the course of a single night doesn’t initially sound like a recipe for success, but this is one of Mikey and Nicky‘s biggest strengths. There aren’t many distractions, except for the décor in Nellie’s fabulous apartment, so we’re able to focus on what is the most important: Mikey and Nicky’s very confusing friendship. Boomer, did you enjoy the film’s simplicity or did you find it to be boring?

Boomer: I’ve always been a big fan of “small” films, by which I mean movies that focus on the relationship between a minimal group of characters and which play out more like a stage play than big sweeping epics (although I love those too). Part of this could be borne out of my theatre background, but it more likely comes from having watched so many episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in my youth; in those early days of television, newly minted screenwriters seemed to still be stuck in a very “stage” mindset, usually writing scripts for no more than three major characters and confining the action to one set. Serendipitously, just a few nights before watching Mikey and Nicky, my roommate (coincidentally also named Nicky) and I watched a 1961 episode of AHP, “Gratitude,” starring a thirty-four-year-old Peter Falk as a gangster who is terrified of being killed by his rivals for potentially exposing their casino ring to wider police scrutiny. I’ve never really thought of Falk as typecast, but it sure is a fascinating alignment of coincidence that he played the Nicky role therein.

As such, I really did enjoy the intimate focus on these two men and their deteriorating relationship as May traced their dialogue-heavy path across the New York that exists only at night and only in the past. The film is essentially a play in motion, tracking Mikey and Nicky from one set piece to the next but not being predicated on the need for that movement; I could easily see this being adapted for the stage, with most of the discussion and conversation playing out in the relative safety of Nicky’s hotel room. The film draws you into the intimacy of the title characters’ relationship long before the rug is pulled out from beneath you with the revelation of Mikey’s true motivations, and most narratives (especially those on Alfred Hitchcock Presents) would be satisfied to reveal this twist and skip right to the violent ending, but Elaine May lets us continue on with this knowledge as the film tracks towards its sorrowful, if inevitable, conclusion.

Brandon mentioned Tangerine as a companion piece above, but this felt to me more like an inverted Girl Walk//All Day, in the sense that the latter film is a casual, daylit, dialogue-free feel-gooder that expresses itself through fluid and expressive motion and color, the opposite of Mikey and Nicky‘s languid (and stumbling) trek through the dark, in which the plot is driven largely by conversation, reminiscence, and old grudges. Both even have revelatory scenes in graveyards! This flick’s your pick, Alli, and we covered GW//AD before we were fortunate enough to have you join us. If you have seen that film, do you agree that it would serve as a decent counterpoint to M&N? What other films do you think would serve as thematically or narratively companions to this one, if you were to program such an all-night double feature?

Alli: I just watched Girl Walk//All Day, and I think it’s definitely got a lot of similarities, like you said with the graveyard, and it shows a lot of New York, but the New New York. It’s not the hazy grimy 70’s New York. It’s the glowing Times Square, people coming and going New York. If you were to take The Girl, The Gentleman, and The Creep and transport them to 70’s New York, especially the New York of Mikey and Nicky, they’d stick out like a sore thumb and probably get mugged. Another companion piece with a similar tone as GW//AD–I know this isn’t a film, but there’s an episode of Broad City where Abbi looses her phone, and she has to run around New York in search of it. It’s got the chase aspect, but it’s more about friendship than betrayal. It also has the added bonus of two lead actors with amazing chemistry together.

As far as actual movies go, I think Wings of Desire would be a good double feature with thisand not just because Peter Faulk is also in it. It’s something about the wandering through Berlin as these two angels try and figure it all out. West Berlin looks as decaying as New York City in the 70’s. It’s also a movie that was shot with a minimalist script and a lot of improvisation. Of course, Wings of Desire was heavily praised and award-winning, while Mikey and Nicky fell into obscurity.

I know part of why it fell into obscurity was due to legal battles and distribution issues, but it still puzzles me. It’s a beautiful movie. It’s also just as much ahead of its time as it is a time capsule of a dark and gritty era of New York history. On top of all of that, it’s really quotable. One of my favorite lines in all of cinema is, “You make us sound like a couple of cemetery freaks.”  I think it should stand out more. And I hate to say that it might be due to having a woman director, especially when I know about all the release problems, but I think it’s definitely a contributing factor. After all, Apocalypse Now suffered similar production problems with a much, much higher budget, and is now regarded one of the best films ever.

Brandon, do you think gender bias had an affect or is this just a case of a small movie not finding its audience? Like you said before, this is the first film by a female director for Movie of the Month. I think that’s pretty representative of the state of gender in filmmaking.

Brandon: That’s a difficult question to answer definitively. Gender bias is an issue that gets its nasty little fingerprints on everything, so it obviously has a huge effect on what films are being made, seen, and properly canonized, just like it effects nearly every other aspect of life. On the one hand, I remain thoroughly embarrassed that I had not been paying attention to highlighting female-directed films through the tiny critical platform we have here in these Movie of the Month discussions. On the other hand, the source of that problem is deeply rooted in the film industry as a system & an institution. According to this piece in the Hollywood Reporter, “Women comprised just 7 percent of all directors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films in 2016.” 7 percent. I can’t imagine the numbers were any better when May was working back in the macho days of the 1970s or any other time in cinema history (2016 actually saw a significant dip from 2015’s barely-better 9 percent; thing’s aren’t consistently “getting better”) and that long-standing under-representation behind the camera is a huge blow to the kinds of voices we get exposed to as an audience.

Hollywood is simply not giving enough women (or anyone who’s not a white dude, more broadly) the opportunity to produce well-funded, well-distributed, well-promoted media, which means that when we’re making selections for conversations like these it’s important to pay attention to who we’re representing. That can mean taking extreme measures like critic Mayra E. Gates’s recent A Year With Women project, where she decided to only watch female-directed films for an entire year. It can also mean taking less drastic actions like the 52 Films by Women pledge, which only asks that you watch one film a week directed by a woman over the course of a year. I decided to take the 52 Films by Women pledge myself this year after embarrassingly realizing I watched less than 40 female-directed films in 2016, a pathetically low number considering the rate of my pop culture intake. The point of the pledge is to pay attention to who’s making the media you’re consuming and to go out of your way to seek out the filmmakers Hollywood is systemically underserving.

The question is how to reconcile that context with Elaine May’s reputation as a director. Based on Mikey and Nicky alone, May is a bold stylist who’s grimy vision of New York City rivals the likes of Scorsese, Ferrara, De Palma, and Friedkin in its palpable sense of danger & fearless desperation. Yet, her name is rarely championed among those contemporary New Hollywood rebels. May’s roots are as a comedy writer/performer alongside longtime creative partner Mike Nichols, yet Nichols managed to direct twenty feature films while May only completed four (despite enjoying a long life as a screenwriter, often uncredited). According to common wisdom, this is because May was difficult to work with and ineffective in keeping films on budget & efficiently produced. Of her four feature films, only one was a certifiable, profitable hit. The other three, Mikey and Nicky included, were all two-times over budget, delayed for endless months in the editing room, and dead on arrival at the box office. All three.

In his My World of Flops piece on the Warren Beatty comedy Ishtar, May’s most infamous and most expensive flop, critic Nathan Rabin writes, “Comic genius Elaine may has led a schizophrenic existence as both an in demand script doctor and a ferociously independent, obsessive überauteur who would rather feed her children to wolves than to let a script doctor (or studio head) tinker with her vision. […] May embodied ‘box office poison.’ She should have been unemployable as a director. She was letigious. She was expensive. She was difficult. She viewed studios as enemies rather than collaborators or benefactors. From a commercial perspective, investing in an Elaine May film made only slightly more sense than purchasing magic beans or building a bonfire out of one-hundred dollar bills.”

I honestly don’t know how to negotiate those two sides of Elaine May’s financial and critical downfall. Many male directors have been given 2nd, 3rd, and 4th chances to deliver a winning picture after falling on their face, so I’m willing to chalk up at least some of her professional missteps to having to be combative with movie studios who never really had her back. Her reputation as a “control freak” and a perfectionist sounds a little ridiculous when you consider the opportunity and patience afforded people like James Cameron and David O’Russell, who also often push the limits of reasonable on-set behavior. I can’t say for sure if her films weren’t hits because they weren’t properly promoted after her less than harmonious relationships with movie studio execs soured their willingness to give her the benefit of the doubt, or if those execs (and audiences) never gave her a proper chance from day one. The truth, of course, is probably a combination of all of these factors, including both May’s personal failings as a businesswoman and the culture’s failings of women in general. It’s a depressing mess of missed opportunities and unprofessional behavior in which gender bias certainly played some sort of a role, if not a large one.

The one aspect of Elaine May’s professional downfall that really fascinates me is the idea that she would shoot way too much footage and then, as they say, slowly “find the film in the editing room,” post-production. This filmmaking style is so much more common now in the digital era, due to the lowered production cost of not shooting on physical film, and I’m wondering if her approach to the craft was just a few decades ahead of her time. Britnee, based on Mikey and Nicky & May’s reputation, is there a type or genre of film you would’ve liked to see Elaine May direct in this style, if she were afforded an unlimited budget and no restrictions on the amount of film she could shoot? Would you want to see her to go big in a large-scale production or does the small-scale nature of Mikey and Nicky seem like the perfect fit for her talents?

Britnee: I would love to see May direct a horror film. Mikey and Nicky was a pretty dark movie, but the story alone isn’t what made the film so disturbing; it’s May’s style of directing. It’s so haunting.  The uncomfortable silence, the tense yet mysterious relationship between the two main characters, and all the creepy distant camera shots from Mikey and Nicky makes me feel as though May would do an amazing job directing a horror movie that’s told through the eyes of a serial killer. She has the ability to make the audience feel like they’re lurking, so she is more than capable of creating a movie that would basically force viewers to be in the mind of a killer. Big budget movies don’t suite her style, but she would definitely be a badass low-budget horror film queen. I can’t help but imagine her directing a movie called something like Through the Eyes of Jeffrey Dahmer. Horror was definitely something she should have dabbled into, but unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like she would’ve ever had the chance because of all the shitheads in Hollywood.

Speaking of horror and death, I’ve been thinking a bit about Mikey’s assistance in Nicky’s death. He knew that Nicky was ultimately going to be “sleeping with the fishes,” so I’m having a hard time trying to figure out why he put himself through the pain of spending the night with him while helping the mob hunt him down. Mikey was so concerned with Nicky’s stomach ulcer and keeping him alive in the beginning of the film, but I’m not 100% sure what his intentions were.

Boomer, do you think Mikey kept Nicky alive to please the mob and save his own ass? Did he not let the stomach ulcer kill him because he couldn’t physically watch his friend die?

Boomer:  I think that his lifelong friendship with Nicky probably has a lot to do with Mikey’s attitude. One of the elements that really stood out to me was the early scene in the coffee shop, especially in retrospect. Before we learn the true nature of Mikey’s investment in getting Nicky out of the hotel (in a great reveal, by the way; I don’t think I’ve ever been as emotionally sucker-punched as I was in that scene where the phone starts ringing in the bar and the audience connects that Mikey and Ned Beatty’s assassin Kinney are in cahoots), the scene feels like a strong demonstration of Mikey’s friendship, showing that he will act outside of his pleasant and avuncular demeanor in order to take care of his dear friend. When we find out that he really wants to “take care” of him, this violent outburst becomes much more disturbing in retrospect, as it shows the menace lurking beneath the kindly façade, ready to burst forth at any time. It’s startlingly effective on both the first watch and the second, but for different reasons.

There’s an old folk story that I heard in my youth about a man who, for whatever reason, was forced to cut the tail off of his pet monkey. Rationalizing that cutting off the whole tail all at once would be too cruel, the man decides to slice off a mere inch at a time, ending up causing the monkey far more injury than if he had simply cut the whole tail off at once. In the end, Mikey is that man, as he acts as the Judas to Nicky’s shitty Christ figure, hurting him more in the long run than if he had simply taken care of business himself.

There is certainly something to be said for the ties that bind adults who were friends(?) in childhood. Although his behavior towards Mikey and everyone who crosses their path is reprehensible, Nicky is fundamentally sympathetic in that we as an audience feel empathy toward him with regards to his very real anxiety. Further, the way that Mikey trails him across the city with ulterior motives speaks to a deeply human paranoia that the people that we care for and who seem to care about us could be hiding their true feelings and intentions. On the other hand, the bullied child in all of us can recognize the complexity of sentiment one must have for a lifelong companion who is both friend and tormentor, and though we can detest Mikey for his involvement in Nicky’s ultimate fate, our sympathies lie with him also. As such, I don’t think Mikey was keeping Nicky alive to please the mob, but he might have been doing so in order to attempt to save himself on a emotional or spiritual level. Killing wiseguys is just part of the business, and he doesn’t have much of a choice in his participation in the Passion of Nicky, but he feels that if he can lessen that suffering, even a little, it will help calm the disquiet in his soul. He can’t escape it, however, as is made manifest in the film’s final moments, when his sins literally follow him all the way home.

Lagniappe

Alli: I like all the different backgrounds and settings in this movie. They all have such a unique vibe and atmosphere. The bare bones diner feels like it’s a whole world apart from Nellie’s beautiful apartment, and even more so the cemetery. It’s almost like we’re watching Nicky’s​ life flash before his eyes, each place being a separate chapter.

Britnee: I thought it was strange how calm Mikey’s wife, Annie, was throughout the film. She doesn’t have much screen time, but she is in no way the typical mob wife (I can’t help but think of my girl Big Ang). She’s so calm and collected while obviously knowing what her husband is up to. Props to her.

Boomer: There’s something deeply sad in Falk’s performance that just would not have been present in another performer. He’s not as attractive as Cassavetes, and his humble looks and charm are in great form here against the other man’s performative hedonism. Unlike the gadabout Nicky, who has a wife but can’t keep her because of his personal flaws, Mikey’s wife seems to genuinely love him, and Mikey’s darkest moment in the film comes when he tries to be Nicky and sleep with another woman. The film’s saddest moment comes when Mikey feels inferior to Nicky, plaintively and furtively seeking the approval of his bosses while reflecting on Nicky’s statements about how they really feel about him. There’s a great parallelism going on there, with Nicky telling Mikey about another party’s ulterior motives while Mikey hides his own secrets from Nicky.

Brandon: I’d like to again encourage people to consider taking the 52 Films by Women pledge. It’s not at all a difficult quota to fulfill once you actually pay attention to what you’re watching. I’ve had a lot of fun taking the pledge myself so far this year, a journey I’ve been documenting in this Letterboxd list if you’re looking for a few titles to get your own pledge started. Secondly, I’d encourage you to buy a copy of Nathan Rabin’s My World of Flops book (or borrow one from the library), which includes a much more expansive piece on Ishtar than the one I linked above (and it’s the version I was actually quoting). It’s not only worth it for the Elaine May musings. Rabin’s my favorite living critic and the entire book is a shining example of the kind of open-minded, empathetic criticism I try to emulate on this site. (He liked Ishtar a lot more than that isolated pull-quote may have implied.)

Upcoming Movies of the Month
June: Brandon presents Cool As Ice (1991)
July: Britnee presents Something Wicked this Way Comes (1983)
August: Boomer presents The Psychic (1977)

-The Swampflix Crew

Tampopo (1985)

Hailed as the first “ramen western” (a play on the term “spaghetti Western”), Tampopo takes that designation to it’s most extremely literal end, focusing on the title character’s ramen shop as the location of metaphorical quick-draws and high noon showdowns, as well incorporating a variety of loosely connected comedy sketches about food.

The main narrative concerns the arrival of truck driver Gorō (Tsutomu Yamazaki) and his sidekick Gun (a young Ken Watanabe) at the barely-afloat ramen shop, Lai Lai, that widowed single mother Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto) inherited from her husband. Under Gorō’s tutelage, Tampopo resurrects her shop along with help from a motley crew of unlikely allies: Shōhei (Kinzō Sakura), a chauffeur who has a way with noodles; “The Old Master” (Yoshi Katō), a former surgeon reduced to vagrancy, but possessing a nearly-magical skill with noodle making; and Pisuken (Rikiya Yasuoka), a formerly antagonistic contractor who redesigns the interior of the shop, now renamed “Tampopo” in honor of its proprietress.

Interspersed throughout is the story of a white-clad gangster (frequent Kiyoshi Kurosawa collaborator Kōji Yakusho) and his mistress, who explore the erotic aspects of food. Other shorter one-off scenes include a salaryman upstaging his superiors at a fancy restaurant with his extensive knowledge of haute cuisine, a class of women being taught the Western way of eating spaghetti while a Western patron at a nearby table does the opposite of what their etiquette teacher instructs, a grocer pursuing a food-squeezing woman through the aisles of his market, a man dealing with an abscessed tooth, and a derelict making Tampopo’s son a rice omelette while evading detection by a security guard, among others.

Using tropes that one would normally find in Western genre films, Tampopo paints Gorō as the high plains drifter who wanders into town and saves a local homesteader, except that he does so with his cooking skills and not his guns (although his fists come in handy more than once). There are recurring Western-like themes, like the defeated enemy who becomes a friend (which plays out not just between Gorō and Pisuken but also between Tampopo’s son and the bullies who frequently harass him), the training montage straight out of the original Magnificent Seven, and even an ending scene that plays out as a virtual recreation of the end of Shane. This juxtaposition of Western archetypes and Eastern social rules and concepts make for a delightful and refreshing movie that’s sure to make you laugh and hunger.

Tampopo is available in several DVD releases, but, as always, the Criterion version is most highly recommended.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Deadly Weapons (1974)

threehalfstar

campstamp

The soundtrack may have gotten a little more psychedelic, the blood may have gotten a little more colorful, and the breasts may have gotten much, much larger, but not much else seemed to have changed for producer/director Doris Wishman in the decade between her by the books roughie Another Day, Another Man and her “erotic” crime thriller Deadly Weapons. Doris Wishman’s weirdly casual approach to sex & violence in her exploitation work remained entirely lateral in terms of filmmaking quality and it’s pretty impressive in its own way that a filmmaker two decades into her career managed to make something as genuinely amateurish and, frankly, as punk as Deadly Weapons. A crime thriller in which famed burlesque dancer Chesty Morgan (billed in-film as Zsa Zsa) assassinates mafia types by smothering them with her gigantic breasts, Deadly Weapons certainly pulls more weight as an odd curiosity than Wishman’s era-appropriate 1960s roughies. It’s no different than these films in terms of craft or tone, though, except that it readily provides the naked breasts her roughies would only tease (unlike her early nudie cuties like Nude on the Moon). In fact, like a parent forcing their child to smoke an entire pack of cigarettes in a single sitting, Deadly Weapons confronts the audience with so many shots of large, naked breasts it often feels as if you’re about to choke on them & die, like so many dirtbag mobster goons.

Chesty Morgan stars as a successful advertising executive (or so we’re told) who is dragged into a life of crime when her boyfriend runs afoul of some mafia types. Stupidly blackmailing the mob with a stolen hit list, the boyfriend is promptly murdered in his own apartment (which looks suspiciously like the apartment from Another Day, Another Man) while the buxom ad exec listens in horror on the other end of the phone. Luckily for her, the gangsters hang out long enough after the hit to loudly & clearly discuss what hotel they’ll be hiding out in until the police investigation of the murder cools off. Armed with all the information she needs to track them down, the ad exec poses undercover as a burlesque dancer (go figure) at a nightclub near the Las Vegas hotel where her boyfriends’ killers will be staying. Easily seducing the men individually, she ceremonially slips knock-out pills into their wine glasses (after making a big show of it for the camera) and, once they’re dazed, smothers them to death with her cartoonishly large breasts. After fully enacting her revenge for her lover’s murder, she returns home from Vegas to encounter a Shyamalan-level plot twist on who was truly responsible for the initial crime. This revelation drives the story home to an ending befitting of a Shakespearean tragedy: bodies strewn about the stage, laying in pools of their own blood & the stench of betrayed trust. It’s all very silly.

Although Deadly Weapons is obviously remarkable for the novelty of its breasts-as-weapons premise, it’s worth noting that those kills don’t occur until over 50 minutes into the film’s 70min runtime. Worse yet, our killer burlesque dancer only dispenses of two mobsters this way – one per boob. Those two kills are highly entertaining as oddities, though, especially in the soundtrack that accompanies them. As the gangster meanies suffocate on Chesty Morgan’s plentiful tit flesh, a nightmarish cacophony of wailing guitars, animal roars, and grotesque, masculine grunts overpower the film’s audio. Meanwhile, Chesty Morgan herself looks nearly orgasmic in these moments, giving off the embarrassing cross-eyed, empty stare people usually save for sexual congress. What saves the film from tedium before these third act kills, however, is the fact that Morgan’s superhuman rack is a sight to behold even when it’s not being employed as a murder weapon. There’s nothing especially erotic about watching Morgan take a bubble bath or somehow squeeze herself into a t-shirt, but those simple tasks are oddly compelling as an audience due to her . . . unique proportions. Even in a scene when she’s just wistfully staring out a window, admiring a ring her boyfriend gifted her, her breasts fill almost the entire frame, suffocating any potential focus on anything else onscreen.

Psychedelia + Giant Breasts is certainly a formula that’s been exploited onscreen before; just think to Roger Ebert & Russ Meyer’s collaborative trashterpiece Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Deadly Weapons boasts neither the manic energy nor the absurdist dialogue of Dolls, though, and its own appeal as a vintage curiosity is based in something much more laidback & misshapen. Wishman’s erotica is never exactly erotic; her violence is never truly shocking. Her fetishistic focus on unerotic details like ashtrays, dime store pantyhose, plastic-covered couches, and pills hidden in cleavage are the visual equivalent of a cold shower for anyone potentially turned on by Chesty Morgan’s physique. The film’s bloodiest fit of violence, a multiple stab wound incident in a stairwell, is similarly undercut by a disorienting trip down multiple, identical flights of stairs and the fakest-looking (but apparently very real) mustache I’ve ever seen, sported by hardcore porn performer Harry Reems. It’d be easy to pick on Deadly Weapons for its blatant use of stock footage, its continuity errors during a poorly staged strangling, its awkward moments when cameramen are bumped into or set lights are mistakenly exposed, the nausea-inducing green & purple tints of its impressively shitty film transfers, etc. However, that kind of nitpicking entirely misses the basic appeal of the novelty of this Wishman-Morgan collaboration (a combo that would later reunite for Double Agent 73).

There’s a candid, proto-punk amateurism to Deadly Weapons that tops even its killer-tits premise in terms of basic ridiculousness. It’s rare that this grade of schlock is so inherently fascinating just in its basic existence, although plenty of films have certainly tried to pull off that very trick. Wishman is undeniably a filmmaker all of her own, a distinction that can either annoy or delight you depending on things like how interested you’d be to watch a film about a pair of killer breasts & how willing you’d be to settle for one kill per tit.

-Brandon Ledet

Mickey One (1965)

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three star

“I couldn’t be funny if my life depended on it . . . And it did.”

Two years before his landmark film Bonnie & Clyde effectively kicked off what’s since been dubbed the New Hollywood movement, Arthur Penn delivered something much stranger & more deliberately obscure with that film’s same star, Warren Beatty. New Hollywood’s loosely defined aesthetic has several distinguishing features: anti-hero protagonists, avoidance of tidily happy endings, counter culture rebelliousness, etc. A large part of the movement’s appeal, however, derived directly from young American directors borrowing stylistic technique from the films of the French New Wave, particularly in their approach to unconventional cinematography. The film Beatty & Penn made before Bonnie & Clyde didn’t exactly pull influence from the French New Wave the way their breakthrough hit would. Mickey One was more of a French New Wave pastiche than a direct descendant. It wholesale borrowed everything it could grab from directors like Godard & Truffaut right down to their stark black & white cinematography. Just about the only things Mickey One kept distinctly American were the accents & Warren Beatty’s face. The results were messy & less iconic than Bonnie & Clyde and far too pretentious to strike a chord with American audiences in the same way, but they are fascinating as an artifact. It’s like watching New Hollywood’s unevolved ancestor crawling out of the primordial cinematic ooze. It ain’t pretty, but you can’t look away.

In a dizzying opening credits sequence we’re introduced to Beatty’s troubled charmer protagonist as a hopeless lush. He drinks, gambles, and philanders his way through his minor celebrity as a stand-up at nightclubs owned almost exclusively by mafia types. In what feels like the credits to the world’s weirdest sitcom, we learn everything we need to know about this doofus: his world, his ego, his thirsts, his enemies. It’s chaotic surrealism, drunken delirium, abrasive jazz, kaleidoscopic noir. Much like with the opening minutes of the proto-blacksploitation piece Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, it’s easy to be convinced in Mickey One‘s intro that you’re about to watch one of the single greatest cinematic achievements of all time, only to have that same exciting energy turned around to beat your enthusiasm into mush. A young, handsome Warren Beatty lives the high life in those credits and immediately crashes once they conclude. Instead of serving as a makeshift court jester for the club-owning mobsters he amuses with corny punchlines he becomes a persecuted target for an offense no one can name. We’re never sure if Beatty’s tortured stand-up faulted on an outrageous gambling debt, slept with a mobster’s wife, or, quite possibly, never committed any crime at all. Mickey One stubbornly clouds its central conflict in an oppressive air of mystery. It’s a choice that might have worked if the film’s abrasive, jazz-driven pace & tone ever slowed down long enough to allow the audience to properly sink into its sense of existential dread, but it’s just a little too frustrating as is.

Penniless & on the run from faceless, mysterious mobsters, our broken hero finds himself greasy, homeless, as handsome as ever, and hiding under a false pseudonym. After a short period of bottom-of-the-barrel blue collar labor, the spotlight calls to him. He starts gravitating towards the types of nightclubs he used to headline, first as a heckler and then as a performer, despite the danger of breaking his anonymity. A Marcel Marceau-type billed simply as “The Artist” pops up every now & then to mime encouragement and to draw him out of laying low. As his love interest puts it, he’s hiding from he doesn’t know what for a crime he’s not sure he’s committed, but he can’t help delivering corny jokes to mildly amused audiences in the meantime. This all whips by in a blur, only ever settling down for two distinct scenes: one where his mime-muse constructs an intricate Rube Goldberg-style art instillation that reflects his greatest fear (the mob disposing of his body in an automotive junkyard) and one where he “auditions” for faceless mobster club owners, the only visible presence in the room being the menacingly divine shine of the spotlight. Mickey One’s jokes aren’t any funnier than Rupert Pupkin’s in The King of Comedy. Its tone is in a continuous, chaotic shift that never allows its audience to get lost in its world. It’s undeniably messy, embarrassingly pretentious, and has essentially zero potential for commercial value. And yet, you can never shake the feeling that it’s just a half step away from being breathtakingly brilliant.

Distribution companies weren’t sure what to do with Arthur Penn’s French New Wave pastiche in 1965 and silently dumped it in drive-ins instead of giving it a prestigious theatrical release. Fifty years later, I’m still not sure what to do with the badly damaged, mostly forgotten art film mishmash. In an abstract sense I greatly admire the way the source of its Kafkaesque paranoia is never made literal and Beatty’s pre-Clyde anti-hero is made to live out his own stand-up comedy-themed version of The Trial. I was just never given much more than that vague paranoia & some terrible one-liners to associate with the character. It was difficult to care about his anxiety & the beautiful, energetic imagery that borders it in any way outside of distant, detached fascination. There’s never any question why Mickey One isn’t the Beatty-Penn collaboration that broke through instead of Bonnie & Clyde. Its limited appeal is immediately apparent. I do find it weirdly compelling as proto-New Hollywood weirdness, though, and I could easily see my cautious fondness for it growing with a few repeat viewings. The problem is that I can also see my nitpicking annoyances with it growing as well.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 12: Mean Streets (1973)

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Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Mean Streets (1973) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 73 of the first edition hardback, Ebert likens losing his Catholic faith to the internal struggle of Harvey Keitel’s character in the film. He writes, “When I saw Harvey Keitel placing his hand in the flame in Mean Streets, I identified with him. The difference between us was that long before I reached the age of Charlie in the film, I had lost my faith. It didn’t make sense to me any longer. There was no crisis of conscience. It simply all fell away.” He also mentions on page 276 that Scorsese, who he affectionately refers to as “Marty”, sent him early screenplays that would eventually blossom into Mean Streets and that critic Pauline Kael was another major supporter of the film.

What Ebert had to say in his reviews: “Martin Scorsese’s ‘Mean Streets’ isn’t so much a gangster movie as a perceptive, sympathetic, finally tragic story about how it is to grow up in a gangster environment. Its characters (like Scorsese himself) have grown up in New York’s Little Italy, and they understand everything about that small slice of human society except how to survive in it.” – from his 1973 review for the Chicago Sun Times

“Martin Scorsese’s ‘Mean Streets’ is not primarily about punk gangsters at all, but about living in a state of sin. For Catholics raised before Vatican II, it has a resonance that it may lack for other audiences. The film recalls days when there was a greater emphasis on sin–and rigid ground rules, inspiring dread of eternal suffering if a sinner died without absolution.” -from his 2003 review for his Great Movies series

I’m going to get this disclosure out of the way early: Goodfellas is probably my favorite movie. At the very least it shares the top spot with Boogie Nights, which is a film that was heavily influenced by Goodfellas. I know this is a sort of bland, generic selection for personal favorite film that doesn’t shed much light on my cinematic tastes (Would it help if I also made it clear that John Waters is my favorite director?), but that doesn’t make it any less true. Goodfellas is a fun, gorgeous, devastating work of pop cinema that pulls off my favorite formula in the art of filmmaking: combining highbrow finery with lowbrow trash. It constructs one of the most perfectly balanced & lush cinematic journeys I’m likely to ever see before I die. I cannot say enough good things about it, so I should probably just cut myself off now before the gushing becomes unbearable.

It took a long time for Scorsese, or Uncle Marty if you will, to perfect his Italian-American crime life aesthetic for what would eventually be, by my measurement, his magnum opus. Indeed, a lot of his highly-lauded work came before Goodfellas‘s release:Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ. Even before these hallmarks in the director’s career, however, he had given Goodfellas something of a dry run in his early work Mean Streets. Scorsese’s third feature film is impossible to discuss in without mentioning the shadow of Goodfellas that looms over it. Praising the film’s innovation or artistic specificity now would feel like exalting the brilliance of the match after the invention of the blowtorch or the flamethrower or the nuclear bomb. Mean Streets is a germ of an idea that Uncle Marty would later hatch & perfect. As someone who wasn’t around to catch the original version of Goodfellas in isolation, it’s difficult for me to judge it too fairly or afford it much patience. For so much of Mean Streets‘s runtime I find myself wishing I were watching its superior incarnation instead.

As much as I’m downplaying Mean Streets here as Goodfellas‘s older loser brother who still sleeps on Mom’s couch “between jobs”, the two films are actually quite different plot-wise. Goodfellas depicts an organized crime ring of Italian-Americans who are on top of the world in their villainy (for a time). Mean Streets follows the same ethnic group through the same streets of NYC, except it depicts them at the bottom of the food chain. Harvey Keitel navigates the ratty New York City of the early 1970s (hard drugs, gang activity, and all) as a low level numbers-runner going through a personal, spiritual crisis. His inner monologues about losing his religious faith & struggling with the then-taboo of interracial lust have lost a lot of potency in a modern context. Most of what makes his conflict worthwhile to the audience as entertainment is in his Achilles heel of affection for a baby-faced Robert DeNiro, who plays the unconscionable brat bastard Johnny Boy. Johnny Boy is essentially an Italian-American version of Johnny Rotten, forecasting the punk rocker stereotype long before the “mean streets” of NYC gave it a name. It’s this loudmouthed, shit-stirring catalyst that gets Keitel’s protagonist mixed up in a level of do-or-die mob violence that’s way over his head and drives the film to the inevitable bloodbath catharsis that would eventually serve as a Scorsese calling card.

Mean Streets is mostly charming if you think of it as a punk rock version of Goodfellas. Its risks, successes, and failures work on a much smaller scale than its descendant’s eventual pinnacle, but there’s something inherently cool about its absence of pressure to deliver big time thrills & awe at every turn. The film was born of the same New Hollywood adrenaline rush that brought on new kinds of crime films like The French Connection and Bonnie & Clyde and although it didn’t quite match the artistry of those works, it’s easy to see how its influence could’ve reached far beyond Goodfellas. The film was made even before Coppola’s The Godfather, for instance, so this version of the modern gangster genre was truly embryonic at best. However, it’s difficult to discuss Mean Streets as a seminal work without obsessively narrowing in on the Scorsese films to follow (as you can likely tell). Almost all of the film’s pop music, pan shots, street brawls, and home video charm is repeated in Goodfellas to the point where the only scene that stands out as distinctly its own is one where two rival crews fight over someone being called a “mook”, despite no one involved knowing exactly what that means. It’s a great moment, but I’m willing to bet it would’ve played even better in Goodfellas. (And, yes, even I’m tired of hearing me say that.)

Ebert loved Scorsese as a filmmaker & as a friend. He supported the director’s career since his debut film Guess Who’s Knocking? and did his best to make his name the modern behemoth that it is. Scorsese even sent Ebert an early copy of the screenplay for Mean Streets before the film went into production. I’m not saying that the reason why Ebert gave the film such a glowing review was that he had established a personal relationship with the director. I just think that their personal connection may have put the critic more in tune with what Uncle Marty was trying to do & say in his work. When Ebert watched Mean Streets he saw an ambitious film about the loss of Catholic faith that had shaped his own life in his youth and all other sorts of early 70s spiritual crises that wouldn’t affect me as much in a modern context (despite ditching my own Catholic faith as a youth), the jaded brat that I am. When I look at Mean Streets, all I see is a misshapen embryo of a better film to follow. Maybe when I get to Ebert’s chapter of Life Itself on Scorsese I’ll even get to review that masterpiece properly instead of cramming my thoughts on it into a different film’s territory.

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Roger’s Rating: (4/4, 100%)

fourstar

Brandon’s Rating: (3.5/5, 70%)

threehalfstar

Next Lesson: 2001 – A Space Oddyssey (1968)

-Brandon Ledet