Goodnight to the “Bad Guy”… RIP James Gandolfini

James Gandolfini died at age 51 of a heart attack while on vacation in Rome. Best known for his iconic role as the modern mobster Tony Soprano, I first saw him as a gentle giant, a stuntman turned heavy in GET SHORTY. He played Bear, a quiet big guy who only cared about his daughter, and made some bad decisions while trying to support her.

best-tony-onion-rings
Our Fadda, who art in Holsten’s

Mr. Gandolfini actually had great range, if a voice as recognizable as Tony Curtis’s. He said he enjoyed playing blue collar roles because they are largely invisible, and when you have a blue collar accent, we are allowed to make fun of you (as in the mocking, “Da Castle of my Fadda,” which Curtis never actually said). He played one of the monsters in WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE. He sang WELL in ROMANCE & CIGARETTES (full review here). I didn’t recognize Gandolfini without his beard when he played the killer in TRUE ROMANCE, in a great scene in a movie full of great scenes. 

GANDOLFINI-TRUE-ROMANCE
James Gandolfini in TRUE ROMANCE

He was the best part of the recent adaptation of George V. Higgins’ Cogan’s Trade, the middling KILLING THEM SOFTLY, which was good, but confused. His scenes were solid and focused, a hit man falling apart. Like with his Tony Soprano, he brought humanity to a monster from our cultural mythology, brought life to a character type we visualize in shadows and silhouettes. I don’t think he reached his potential. I regret not going to see him onstage in GOD OF CARNAGE and hope a show was filmed. His latest project with David Chase, NOT FADE AWAY, about kids starting a rock band in the ’60s, fizzled away. I haven’t seen it, but that always happens when artists defy expectations.

600px-Gets-1911d
James Gandofini and Delroy Lindo in GET SHORTY

I never met James Gandolfini. I spent a half dozen years watching him in my home, on the Sopranos. He made me feel like I knew him. He inhabited the character in total. I recently ate ice cream at Holsten’s, where the final episode of the Sopranos was filmed. The house they filmed in is not far from where I live. The Bada-Bing is a few miles up the highway from where I work.  I’m sure Sopranos Tours will see a boost, but I’ll wait until that dies down and embark on a brief pilgrimage to Tony. You can argue that Tony wasn’t whacked in the final scene, but you can’t deny that he’s truly gone now.

kate winslet romance cigarettes
Kate Winslet in Romance & Cigarettes

My heartfelt condolences to Mr. Gandolfini’s friends and family. He is survived by his wife and teenage son, and millions of fans who rooted for his greatest creation to murder everyone who stood in his way.

The “Sopranos” booth at Holsten’s. They serve the best ice cream in our area. I still haven’t had the onion rings. I’d probably cry.

holstens booth

The Reader

This is a fine drama but I’m not sure it deserves a best picture nomination. Like Frost/Nixon it is held together by performances, like Rachel Getting Married it has some flaws. Kate Winslet is 99% fantastic, channeling Marlene Dietrich as a German woman named Hannah nearing 40, and still working as a ticket taker on a tram. One day a young man named Michael (David Kross) is sick on her trolley and she helps him; later his mother urges him to go thank her, and a spontaneous affair begins when he peeks at her putting on her stockings.
The first act of the movie is Summer of ’42 and the lovers spent a great deal of time naked. Some complain, but this feels and looks natural. It doesn’t stand out as gratuitous, but shows how prudish most movies actually are these days. As the physical relationship softens and becomes an emotional one, young Michael begins to read to her. It becomes obvious to us watching that Hannah cannot read, but the movie treats this as a surprise later. Perhaps if the movie wasn’t called “The Reader,” and I didn’t immediately think “who’d need a reader? a blind person, or an illiterate?” it could have been a surprise. But it is not, and the movie feels clumsy when it tries to make it so. As Michael ignores the beautiful young girls flowering around him at school, Hannah one day disappears, breaking his heart but freeing him to live a normal life.
We see Michael go to university, years later, where he is studying law. His ethics teacher wants his students to know the difference between law and morality; he takes them to the trial of SS guards charged with the murder of Jews. And Michael sees Hannah again, and she’s not a member of the jury. The “secret” of her illiteracy becomes the linchpin of who is the guiltiest person on trial, and she is too ashamed to admit it. And it becomes obvious that her shame of illiteracy led her to become a guard during the war, and “sign” a statement she could not know the contents of. At first this seems like a clever construct- what if someone ended up a monster through no motive of their own? But it is not. Does redemption exist for ordinary people who followed the rules and abetted atrocities? Or are they just scapegoats for the entire country?
Soon it is Michael’s turn to stand up to the unstoppable engines of the government, justice, and the country’s demand for absolution. Like Hannah, he has a shameful secret he is loathe to reveal, and makes a decision that will haunt him for the rest of his life. For every whistleblower, for every man who stands up to the tanks at Tienanmen Square, for every Oskar Schindler there were a million people who just went along. The Reader is about those people.
Michael’s shame weighs down on him throughout his life and makes him distant from his nonexistent wife and neglected daughter. Played by Ralph Fiennes, he manages to be quiet yet expressive, a shadow of the passionate young man he once was. The third act is his attempt at redemption with Hannah, his daughter, and a survivor, and the weakest part of the film. There are plenty of good scenes, but the pacing is languid and the editing awkward. Like The Return of the King, it doesn’t know when it’s ending, and we get several denouements. We get a clumsy and unnecessary flashback structure with bookends, and it weakens the film.


I think it is still worth seeing, and the performances of Winslet, Kross and Fiennes hold together the director’s clumsy web. If you want to see Kate’s nipples, they’re like the double crimson sunsets on Tatooine in Star Wars on the big screen. Her make-up is excellent and while not as creepy as Benjamin Button’s, she ages convincingly. With her accent and severe expressions, Winslet proves that she can transform into a character- even if that character is eerily reminiscent of Marlene Dietrich in A Foreign Affair. Only once, when she smiles up at us, did she remind me who she was. It wouldn’t be an outrage if she got the Oscar for it.
4 big red Nazi nipples out of 5

the golden globes – livebloggin it

Slumdog Millionaire – golden globe for best picture: drama. It’s awesome to see a story like this win. It’s been a long time since a story like this, reminiscent of classics like Pressburger & Powell’s The Life and Times of Colonel Blimp, win big. Go Bollywood! And who says Americans won’t read (some) subtitles?

And holy shit Mickey Rourke gets best actor for The Wrestler! Go Mick! I’m really surprised that he beat Sean Penn. I think Mickey deserves it, but Penn was pretty amazing too. And he cutely thanks his dogs. He’s got 5 little dogs and he’ll kick your ass if you laugh at his chihuahuas.

Glad that Mad Men got best series, but the cameramen suck for focusing on the bald dudes when there’s hotties behind him. January Jones and Christina Hendricks please…

Kate Winslet wins another one! Wow. She should have won for Little Children two years ago, and now she’s cleaned up. Meryl Streep is going to have her killed.

Freida Pinto from Slumdog is still adorable.

Sascha Baron Cohen being funny and mean. And once again Woody Allen coasts on his rep from two decades ago with a mediocre comedy- Vicky Cristina Barcelona wins best comedy, despite being an insipid snoozer. Go see In Bruges or Happy-Go-Lucky instead; even Burn After Reading, despite being Coen Bros. coasting, was better than VCB.

Colin seems pretty nervous. He and Sally Hawkins don’t realize how good they were. Hell they might be acting it. Damn they’re good. They got me.

Yay Colin Farrell for the underrated In Bruges! A gay golden globe for my gay friend and a normal one for me because I am normal. Best actor in a comedy- though James Franco got a nice nom for Pineapple Express. Franco was great in Milk and got snubbed there.

Sigourney Weaver’s still got it. Ripley can be my Alien Queen anytime.

Danny Boyle gets the Best Director award he deserves. Personally I wanted Darren Aronofsky, but of those nominated- Opie Howard for Frost/Nixon, David Fincher for Forrest Gump 2, Sam Mendes for American Beauty: the 50s, he definitely deserves it. Slumdog is a blast, a retro Hollywood epic. Go see it. And then get some lamb korma.

Apparently when you’re old enough to win a Cecil B. DeMille award, you’re old enough to tell long rambling stories no one wants to hear. Clint Eastwood ought to go up there in character from Gran Torino and tell him to shut up.

Marty Scorsese! He’s turned into Ace Rothstein. And please stop sucking Spielberg’s cock.

Tina Fey, all the way! She’s pretty funny on twitter, too. Woman of the year with her Sarah Palin schtick, too. Way to go Tina. And Baby Mama was pretty funny, great for an SNL-related movie.

Slumdog handily picks up best score, too. And it’s a good one, too.

Apparently Glenn Close is wearing the drapes a la Gone With the Wind, and Lawrence Fishburne ate all of Seth Rogen’s leftovers. Morpheus looks more like Idi Amin.

Going by Seth “Nutrisystem” Rogen and Giammati, muttonchop ’70s sideburns are in! And I just shaved my Lemmy ‘stache off. Damn you, Firecracker!

Paul Giamatti for John Adams; he did a great job, and I always like it when fat little men get awards.

Alec Baldwin for 30 Rock; Duchovny probably lost because he got too into the part and had to go for sex addiction counseling. Baldwin joked about humiliating and belittling his daughter. I guess his Glengarry Glen Ross performance wasn’t much of a stretch.

Slumdog Millionaire for best screenplay; the direction was what made it, and the screenwriter even said so. Let’s see if Boyle gets the win, too.

John Adams is grabbing a lot of TV awards; it was quite good but not great, sparse year for mini-series.

Waltz in Bashir gets best foreign language film as expected. Must see it.

Heath Ledger gets a well-deserved award for The Joker; wtf is Tom Cruise nominated for Tropic Thunder for? To show the couch-hopping vitamin pusher still has a sense of humor? Robert Downey Jr. at least got a nom, he was fantastic in Tropic Thunder.

Wall-E deservedly wins best animated. No contest.

Meryl Streep looks embarrassed to be nominated for Mamma Mia.

Don Cheadle really needs to grow back his hair. And facial hair. He looks like he’s made of play-doh.

Glad Sally Hawkins won a GG for Best Actress for Happy-Go-Lucky. I called it and haven’t written my review yet, but it’s one of the year’s best films, and shows that you don’t have to be dark to be deep.

Kate Winslet for The Reader- glad she finally got one, but haven’t seen this yet. Marisa Tomei was great in The Wrestler, but she’ll never be forgiven for winning an Oscar for My Cousin Vinny.

Revolutionary Road

If you haven’t seen a Hollywood drama since the early ’60s, you might be under the impression that in suburbia, everything is sweetness and light, and the rows of identical houses full of ticky tacky are inhabited by the shiny happy people enjoying their Pleasant Valley Sundays. But if you’ve seen The Swimmer, or The Graduate, or American Beauty, you might have an inkling that they are just as miserable as everyone else.

I’m being needlessly harsh on Sam Mendes’s new film Revolutionary Road, based on a groundbreaking novel by Richard Yates, because 46 years later the story is still very powerful but sort of predictable and hackneyed, held up only by the performances of its leads. The opening is excellent- we go from the night they met at a bohemian party in Manhattan and found a spark of passion, to the middle of a marriage in discord; April (Kate Winslet) has just performed in a lackluster play, and her husband Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) is taking her home, and making it very clear just what he thought of it. Frank works for an IBM-clone, just a cog in the corporate machine; April raises their two children at home. Both have betrayed their dreams and moved to suburban Connecticut, because that’s what “you’re supposed to do” when you settle down and have kids.
They’re driving each other crazy, so April suggests that they sell the house, take their savings, and move to Paris, where she can support them doing secretarial work while Frank figures out what he wants to do- and isn’t trapped in a mind-numbing office job. They tell their neighbors, who think they’re being silly. The woman who sold them their house, Helen Givings (Kathy Bates, excellent as usual) finds it “whimsical” and is disappointed; she was trying to get them to befriend her troubled son, because they seemed so “grounded.” But of course they can’t break the shackles of conformity, no matter how hard they try, and shatter like rockets they just couldn’t reach escape velocity.


The acting was phenomenal, but for me it always felt like I was watching suburbanites in a clever diorama. At times it felt like a stage play, and other times like a camera in a zoo. One problem for me was that as a fan of the TV show “Mad Men,” I’ve seen this era portrayed in great detail, by excellent actors, with characters similarly bound by the rules of the times. This reminded me of Mendes’s American Beauty, which had hackneyed and pandering concepts uplifted by a few excellent performances. I can’t fault Yates, for he wrote a great story- it’s just not portrayed that well. Their children seem like furniture. Affairs are treated as expected, and we don’t see enough of the dream they lost to see what they’re missing.

I fully expect Kate Winslet to be nominated for the Oscar; not sure if she should win, I haven’t seen Rachel Getting Married yet. She’s fantastic, as she watches her dream die and makes great sacrifice to try to keep it alive. Leo does well, but I’m sorry, he was too boyish for this part. He looks like a mad little boy smashing furniture. Sure, they wanted to get the Titanic twins (and Kathy Bates) back together again, but I don’t think he was the best choice for this part. Dylan Baker (Happiness) is perfect as one of his fellow office drones, though.

It’s one of the better dramas, but flawed. It kept me engaged, and the performances will grip you, but you can see what’s coming. And you’ve seen these dreams crushed before. Rent Mad Men, and maybe read Yates’s book. Sam Mendes needs to stop filming suburbia in this cold manner, when it’s been done better by Todd Field, with the excellent film Little Children.

4 out of 5 petulant frenzies.