Articles by

<Jonathan Stevenson>

06/16/15 7:18am

Joe Pesci, Ray Liotta and Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese’s

GoodFellas (1990)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
June 19-25 at Film Forum

When Martin Scorsese’s now-classic GoodFellas, screening in a 25th anniversary 4K restoration, was first released, many critics received it as a gritty reality check on the two extant Godfather movies. Unlike Francis Ford Coppola, Scorsese did not portray Italian-American arch-criminals simply as avid pursuers of the American Dream with their own set of rules. To him, like others, they were vicious thugs with a code of conduct that did not comport with accepted moral principles. This feature was certainly an important critical element of the film, but for popular audiences it was muted. The movie’s more salient and extraordinary aspect was the implicit suggestion that despite its characters’ habitual and immoral resort to theft, extortion, and extreme violence, they were undeniably seductive and compelling to any little boy in the neighborhood who saw them in action.


05/14/15 9:00am

Good Kill

Good Kill
Directed by Andrew Niccol
Opens May 15

Andrew Niccol’s haunting Good Kill, set in 2010 during the steep escalation in US drone strikes, argues that remotely piloted vehicles make war too easy to wage. Ethan Hawke’s laconically smoldering Tom Egan, an Air Force major, has weathered six combat tours as an F-16 pilot and yearns to get back into the cockpit. “I miss the fear,” he says. Now he sits in a windowless metal container outside Las Vegas glued to a computer screen, wasting suspected jihadists from thousands of miles away with the squeeze of a joystick. He risks only carpal tunnel. The agonizing absence of valor in his toil taxes his marriage and sobriety. He seeks validation in self-destructive insubordination.

The film has the trappings of a conventional service drama. Egan and his wife—a suitably subdued January Jones—live with their children in modular base housing, defying regimented monotony with muscle cars, barbecues, and booze, maintaining Tom Wolfe’s vaunted “even strain.” But if astronauts transcended “spam in a can” ignominy and matched test pilots in daring patriotic glory, comfy drone operators will never have the right stuff. Fair enough, but the script is overly freighted. While the CIA may deserve its infamy, its rules of engagement probably aren’t as egregious as depicted. As Egan’s commanding officer, Bruce Greenwood, a fine character actor, is saddled with salty, cliché-ridden exposition meant to drive home drone operators’ indispensability for killing terrorists before they kill Americans. Actual operators are undoubtedly torn, but likely don’t debate ethics as deeply or piquantly as they do here. The women are essentially props. Still, Good Kill’s workmanlike quality affords it demonstrative credibility. From the American side, drone warfare itself is that way—safe, banal, quotidian, self-perpetuating. It is also insidiously perverse. In time the only thing Egan can do competently and calmly is the very task he hates most: executing drone strikes.

Civilian deaths (“collateral damage”) seem singularly callous when visited from thousands of miles away. They have hurt America’s image. Beyond that, drone strikes infuriate locals and effectively recruit terrorists. But they also arguably reduce civilian casualties overall and are cheaper than more gallant traditional warfare, and they have allowed the United States to back out of Afghanistan and tamp down terrorist threats in Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, and Somalia. Egan himself sees them as ubiquitous and irrepressible, customizing his lawn so the operators he imagines monitoring his neighborhood can distinguish his house. These considerations justify Good Kill’s tone of weary resignation. Yet the film’s timing as protest is also propitious. On June 1, prompted by outrage among veterans and soldiers over the brief establishment in 2013 of a Distinguished Warfare Medal for drone operators that ranked above the Bronze Star with a “V” and the Purple Heart, the Pentagon is due to release a study on what military decorations drone pilots should be eligible to receive. Traditionalists like Maj. Egan hope it will restore valor’s pride of place in military culture. If so, the motivation to make war with mortal impunity may at least diminish.

03/25/15 8:16am
photo courtesy of Possible Films

Ned Rifle
Directed by Hal Hartley
Opens April 1 at IFC Center

The blithely fin-de-siècle year of 1997 was fertile ground for Hal Hartley, who sensed we still needed better prophets than post-heroic George Costanza. In Henry Fool, the first film of the trilogy that Ned Rifle satisfyingly concludes, Hartley gave us the eponymous Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan), a louche bloviator with pretensions to literary greatness, who inspires his friend, doormat garbage man Simon Grim (James Urbaniak), to write a bestselling epic poem that wins him the Nobel Prize, while knocking up Simon’s unmoored sister Fay (Parker Posey). Henry remains an unpublished lowlife, and becomes a fugitive. Fay is left with their child, Ned Rifle (Fay’s mother’s surname). By 2006, of course, 9/11 paranoia had taken root. In the baggy, overwrought second film of the trilogy Fay Grim, released that year, the CIA enlists Fay in locating Henry’s notebooks, convinced that he is dead and that his work jeopardizes national security.

Befitting a finale, Ned Rifle is tighter than its predecessors and Hartley’s tone shifts from earnest to knowing. Ned (Liam Aiken) emerges from over a decade in witness protection with a devout Christian family piously chaste—a protest virgin—and determined to kill Henry Fool for ruining his mother’s life. Convicted of terrorism, Fay is hardly miserable in prison, doing yoga, starting a book club, and working on her autobiography with a ghost writer named Susan (Aubrey Plaza, just right), an expert on Simon’s oeuvre who insinuates herself into Ned’s picaresque quest. Simon, sequestered in a New York hotel developing stand-up routines he posts on YouTube, admonishes Ned to recognize Henry’s virtues. “I merely endured the world until my friend Henry taught me to do otherwise,” he says.

Henry finally surfaces at a mental institution near Portland, a grizzled hipster in Wayfarers consuming bourbon and cigars, ever the charming and compulsively frank lout. “I’ve got these mercenary quacks by the cojones like nobody’s business,” he says, later assessing Ned and Susan as “an idiot” and “a floozie” who “both read too much.” Jolting, deadpan wisecracks also punctuate Henry Fool, yet its final scene, in which Simon sacrifices his freedom for his twisted muse Henry, is one of cinema’s most poignant takes on friendship. In Ned Rifle, Henry reprises Simon’s heroic command at the end of Henry Fool, prompting Ned to vault free of fear and homicidal impulses to a moment of existential resolution and grace. After seventeen years, Hartley, inimitably, brings Henry home.