No Sudden Move (2021)

I never tire of watching Steven Soderbergh play around with celebrities and camera tech.  It’s like babysitting a little kid who’s toying around in a playroom where each dolly & gadget cost millions of dollars.  I usually prefer to see Soderbergh’s playtime sessions projected on the big screen, and I like them best when they overlap with genres I’m already in love with – which is to say that it’s going to be hard to top the experience of seeing his iPhone-shot psych horror Unsane at the shopping mall multiplex.  Still, it’s been continually fun to watch a long-established director who’s remained excited by his job fuck around with Prestige Cable TV money as if he’s still figuring out the basic elements & limitations of his medium.

The big-picture details of Soderbergh’s latest direct-to-cable effort, No Sudden Move, sound like they belong to the pilot episode of a standard-issue HBO crime drama series.  Don Cheadle, Benicio Del Toro, and Kieran Culkin star as three low-level lackeys who’re hired to hold a business man’s family hostage in exchange for a confidential document of great political import.  The job goes horrifically wrong, and the bottom-rung gangsters find themselves scheming across 1950s Detroit to hold onto the top-secret document as a bargaining chip for their lives . . . and an exponential amount of cash.  It’s a standard heist-gone-wrong plot, styled like a spin-off series about the crime-world decades following Boardwalk Empire.  And yet, it never feels boring or unsurprising thanks to Soderbergh’s flair for wryly funny stunt casting and behind-the-camera mischief.

The biggest hurdle most audiences have to clear to enjoy No Sudden Move is how absolutely fucking bizarre it looks.  While the set & costume design resemble the usual HBO crime series, Soderbergh shoots the entire movie with an extreme wide-angle fisheye lens, often backlit.  Whenever your eye momentarily adjusts to its skateboard video framing and chiaroscuro lighting, the camera pans or glides to make the whole thing look warped again.  I have to imagine it has a lot of unsuspecting audiences scrambling to adjust the picture settings on their TV, but I was personally delighted by that clash of modern camera tech against a vintage setting.  When the cowardly businessman mark, played by David Harbour, complains into a telephone “Everything is so weird right now” I felt like I knew exactly what he meant.  The film never stops looking strange, even if it’s narratively well behaved.

Beyond that extreme fisheye effect, I was mostly just tickled by No Sudden Move’s casting choices.  From the winking, referential casting of Jon Hamm in Mad Men-style G-man suits and Ray Liotta in pistol-whipped Goodfellas mobster mode to the chaotic screen presence of Uncut Gems’s Julia Fox as a bored, pouty moll (recalling Paz de la Huerta in the Boardwalk Empire pilot, come to think of it), you can tell Soderbergh and casting director Carmen Cuba are having a ball.  Otherwise, I can’t say the film really did much for me, at least not as much as the campier, more acidic Behind the Candelabra – the most recent example I’ve seen of Soderbergh playing around in HBO’s toy chest.  If these same fisheye lens or movie star stunt casting experiments had been applied to something more my speed—like a morally queasy horror movie or something draggy like Liberace—I could have fully fallen in love with it.  Knowing Soderbergh, I’ll probably only have to wait a few weeks before that next experiment in craft arrives.

-Brandon Ledet

Laura Dern’s Oscar Story

Back when we covered Alexander Payne’s abortion-themed political satire Citizen Ruth as a Movie of the Month, it occurred to me that it’s dispiritingly rare to see the great Laura Dern in a genuine leading role. Between Citizen Ruth, Rambling Rose, and Inland Empire, I could only find three feature films in which Dern was top-billed as the lead actor, despite decades of fine work on the big screen. Unfortunately, that means the full power of her consistently compelling screen presence largely goes unnoticed & unrewarded, relegated only to her value as a supporting player. Last year, Dern was at least utilized as a potent supporting actor in two major Oscar contenders: Marriage Story & Little Women – which were, interestingly enough, directed by both partners in a married couple (Noah Baumbach & Greta Gerwig, respectfully). Dern’s efforts have been rewarded with a nomination for Best Supporting Actress for Marriage Story in particular, her first nomination since she was recognized as a potential Best Supporting Actress for Wild in 2015 (a statue she lost to Patricia Arquette for Boyhood). What I find interesting about this year’s Dern nomination is how it’s been framed in some online criticism circles as a career-merit award or somehow just Industry recognition for Dern’s recent work on popular television programs like Big Little Lies & Twin Peaks: The Return. The nomination is being discussed as if Dern’s performance in Marriage Story isn’t especially awards-worthy, that she’s being recognized for her contributions to cinema at large. That’s bullshit.

Laura Dern is genuinely fantastic in Marriage Story, totally reshaping the texture of the entire film with just a few scenes of onscreen dialogue. In the film, she plays a high-priced divorce lawyer who escalates the stakes & tone of the central couple’s painful separation. As the films’ two leads, Adam Driver & Scarlet Johansson are allowed to really pick apart the emotional textures of that separation at length (for which they’ve both been nominated as Best Leads). It’s Dern’s thankless task to establish the much harsher, colder tone of the legal arena where that separation will reach its fever pitch. It’s a world that relies on calm doublespeak & practiced artifice, which clashes spectacularly against the raw, confessional emotions of the star combatants. Other lawyer characters played by Ray Liotta & Alan Alda in the film help sketch out the extreme boundaries of that legal hell world, but it’s Dern’s job to welcome Driver & Johansson’s leads through the hell’s front gates, opening up their intimate detangling to a Kafkaesque legal labyrinth that stretches the entire length of the country. Marriage Story is just as much about the cruelty & confusion inherent to navigating the legal system in the process of divorce as it is an intimate drama about a romantic meltdown. In that way, Dern’s supporting role as the first & most prominent lawyer featured onscreen greatly affects our perception of the battlefield where the central conflict unfolds.

Dern’s self-confident power lawyer enters the film by apologizing for her “schleppy” appearance, despite being dressed to the nines in designer jeans & drastic heels. We’re immediately aware that her words & her body language are expressing an entirely different sentiment than what she’s actually communicating. When she offers Johansson, a potential client, to take home cookies from her office, it’s a sly advertisement for her services, as Johansson will continue to keep her in mind long after she leaves the office as she snacks on those treats. When Dern quotes a Tom Petty song in casual conversation, it’s only so she can advertise that she negotiated his ex-wife’s divorce from the singer for a large sum. Of course, these textual subtleties are largely a result of Baumbach’s sharply written screenplay, but Dern is visibly having fun with the material onscreen, selling the full impact of the role in a way few other performers could. Her performative version of active “listening” while Johansson is recounting the details of her failing marriage is as tense as watching a snake coil in grass, waiting to strike at a potential meal. One of the film’s most outrageous moments is when Dern removes her blazer in court as if she’s overheated, entirely just to distract from the opposing counsel’s arguments by showing some skin. She warns her client that “This system rewards bad behavior,” and over time proves to exhibit most of that bad behavior herself, proudly. Laura Dern makes a spectacle out of this seemingly minor role, drawing subtle contrast between the meaning of her body language and the meaning of her spoken dialogue that only becomes more exponentially significant the longer you dwell on its details.

It might be easy to reduce Laura Dern’s Oscars attention for Marriage Story to a glib assumption that it’s a lifetime achievement award rather than recognition for this performance in particular. Between her limited screen time and her highlight-reel monologue where she rants about how “God is absent father” while the Virgin Mary is unfairly upheld as a maternal ideal, there’s plenty of fuel to feed that kind of cynicism. I just don’t think it’s fair to downplay the impact Dern’s presence has on the film at large. She is a gussied-up power lawyer who shapes audience perception on both the communal vanity of Los Angeles and the cutthroat mind games of courtroom etiquette: two major factors in how the marital drama in the forefront develops. The only truth to the argument that she would have gotten this same nomination for any role (say, her interpretation of a silently angry Marmee in Little Women) based on her career’s work at large is that Laura Dern would have killed any role Hollywood tossed her way. She always delivers. The true shame about her nomination this year is that wasn’t for a Best Leading Performance, since Hollywood so rarely affords her top-bill opportunities that she never really has a chance to earn that accolade. If we’re relegating Laura Dern’s powerful screen presence to Supporting Player status only, she might as well earn her first Oscar for her movie-stealing role in Marriage Story. Hopefully she’ll win, and more prominent lead roles will follow.

-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