peteg's blog

Blue Collar (1978)

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Paul Schrader's directorial debut. He co-wrote it with his brother Leonard Schrader, basing it on raw material by Sydney A. Glass. It's far better than his other late-1970s post-Taxi Driver efforts as he extracts a lot of humour from the scenario, perhaps because he directed his own script. Casting Richard Pryor in the lead also helped.

There's industrial unrest on the auto lines in sunny Detroit and everyone has money problems that take many screen minutes to set up. (In this century we can safely just assume that nobody needs a reason for wanting more money.) Partying helps but leads to a harebrained scheme to rob the union that has been robbing them. Maybe. Things go a little pear shaped and the status quo ante is reestablished with some of the names changed. Pryor is often hilarious but quietens down as things get serious. Fearless loose cannon Yaphett Kotto is fantastic. Harvey Keitel does OK but his character is a numpty. Ed Begley Jr. was in there somewhere.

This perhaps opened the door to the style of workplace sitcom later mined by David Mamet and others (humour, well-observed specifics, outre plot). Things got entertainingly Office Space when one frustrated labourer skewered a thieving Coke machine with a Toyota forklift ("16th time you bastard!"). But of course we saw something similar in Doctor Strangelove a decade and a half prior.

Roger Ebert: four stars. An update of On the Waterfront. A stunning debut. Vincent Canby. A poor man's On the Waterfront. Corruption but not as a matter of conscience. A pop tune with a big beat. Contains a certain amount of intellectual confusion.

Rolling Thunder (1977)

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Another post-Taxi Driver story/co-written by Paul Schrader. An early (too early?) Việt Nam war vet flick that was soon eclipsed by the far superior The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now (etc) that people still watch.

Returning from too many years in a POW camp in Hanoi, humourless, robotic William Devane finds the Mexico-adjacent South of the USA less restorative than Tom Cruise did about a decade later, especially after his wife calls it a day after not quite waiting so long. Schrader retreads Taxi Driver by having him accept arbitrary damage to himself (think also Robocop or Terminator) — calling this acceptance "forgiveness" — but not his sacred family. A violent home invasion puts that to the test. Linda Haynes has to explain groupies to him, and later demonstrate. Eventually he sets off with a young Tommy Lee Jones for justice in an entirely unsatisfying Dirty Harry vigilante sort of way. The climax in the brothel is of entirely the wrong sort.

Vincent Canby. Such a tough, complicated, explosive character that one keeps wishing the film were a match for him; so, a precursor to Rambo. Written in 1973! Linda Haynes has nothing on Ava Gardner.

Return Home (1990)

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A David Stratton Marvellous Movie (#75). Another of Ben Mendelsohn's breakout movies from 1990; like The Big Steal and unlike Quigley Down Under, this makes it seem that he was at risk of becoming typecast as a mechanic or petrolhead.

Dennis Coard returns to Adelaide from his insurance job in Melbourne to visit his elder brother Frankie J. Holden's family who run a traditional service station in Mitchell Park (a suburb of Adelaide). I get the impression they live in Grange, near the beach. The vibe is that you can take the boy out of the overgrown country town/state capital but you've got little hope of repopulating it if this is all that's on offer. A lot is said but not enough is shown, especially about the hot rod scene of the 1970s/1980s. There is nothing much of a plot.

Mendelsohn's apprentice-mechanic role is to show these old fogies that the young can still get plenty bored and self-destructive; they'll even have kids just for something to do. Even the drive-in leads to romantic ruts! — that thread of the thin narrative is a drag and it isn't resolved whether Coard will find a new squeeze in his old town. The dog's kennel is a classic, made of car doors and a tarp.

The theme of coming home and finding it better than away is (of course) timeless; perhaps it is a central part of the Australian myth (cf Erskineville Kings and in a different sense Wake in Fright, Walkabout, etc.). The vintage lingo gives it a similar vibe to David Williamson's The Club: things were better when we were amateurs/young, when the pace of change was slower, before Australia was swept up on irresistible international currents. Why should we change/put effort in just to stand still/lose the essence of what we loved?

All the details at Ozmovies. I might be confused about the locations as apparently the service station used in this movie has morphed into the United at Henley Beach. Five stars each from Margaret and David!

Return to Seoul (2022)

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A young Korean woman, adopted by a French couple as a baby, heads to Korea for a break on a whim. (We're told she'd usually go to Tokyo but the airline was unwilling.) In a series of episodes we're shown how her life goes as she becomes more entangled with her biological family (even as she tries to keep her distance from her father) and the dodgier parts of Seoul. Fun is had in how the various characters navigate the social politics in translation; sometimes English is what glues a relationship together. Somehow I really enjoyed it — it's not predictable or stale.

Director Davy Chou has extracted some great performances from his actors. Lead Park Ji-min bravely goes everywhere she's asked to. (I want to see her in a sequel as a Bond girl.) Thomas Favel's cinematography is often excellent with some nice framing of the mostly indoor scenes, though it doesn't reach the heights of Christopher Doyle's Hong Kong.

A Critic's Pick by Amy Nicholson. The dancing scenes were great. Peter Bradshaw. Broker also mines the adoption theme.

Obsession (1976)

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An idle bit of Brian De Palma and Paul Schrader completism. They co-conceived the story and Schrader wrote it up. It's a bit Vertigo with some lengthy Godfather-esque set-piece shots that lack the salience of the Coppola originals, shot in Vaseline lens. Wooden lead Cliff Robertson pines for his wife Geneviève Bujold who is killed in a kidnapping ransom payment screwup that put me in mind of sundry cryptocurrency fiascos. This emotional stall out in 1959 makes him susceptible to a second go around with a lookalike in 1975. For just a moment the thing considers going Bluebeard. John Lithgow does what he can as an inexplicably single Southern good old boy who knows how to flatter and party in fluent Italian. Overall it is inert, drecky and icky.

Roger Ebert: three stars of high regard: "sometimes overwrought excess can be its own reward". Vincent Canby: what's in it for the lookalike?

Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard (2011)

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On the pile for a very long time. Prompted by Jason Di Rosso's coverage of the recent Michael Gudinski biopic (creator of the Mushroom group) who gave it a thumbs up. I haven't trawled Howard's catalogue exhaustively but he really got it together on Teenage Snuff Film: his voice, music and lyrics combine well.

This is mostly talking heads. Nick Cave generally sucks the oxygen out of things with some rueful claims that are easy to make thirty years too late, like the bleating of many an Australian politician after they've departed the scene. On the other hand he does make a few good observations, such as Howard being inflexibly oversensitive, taking things a bit too personally. (I sympathise with his take that Howard felt London was made purely to spite him personally.) Wim Wenders claims the sounds of mid-1980s were The Birthday Party's (see Wings of Desire) and that the blokes from Melbourne (actually St Kilda) brought the heroin. Recurring sometime main squeeze Genevieve McGuckin yields the most light, though I have to dispute her claim that Lydia Lunch is sex on legs. Mick Harvey is similarly bemused by Howard's wild talent. Henry Rollins!

There aren't many flat bits and none last long. The highlights are the concert footage and interviews with Howard himself. He's more fun as a kid on a lark than as a self-identifying guru/elder of the 2000s. You didn't have to be there but it probably helps. Nobody noticed that Howard did for The Birthday Party and Nick Cave what John Cale did for The Velvet Underground.

Paul Byrnes. Co-director Richard Lowenstein made Dogs in Space, He Died with a Felafel in His Hand and later tried to bottle lightning again with Mystify: Michael Hutchence. This was a followup to We're Livin' on Dog Food. He has mostly made music videos.

Hardcore (1979)

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Paul Schrader wrote and directed, somewhat autobiographically (the Dutch Calvinist bits). Also some George C. Scott completism.

A straight (businessman/Christian) father goes looking for a daughter lost to the Californian demimonde. This is Schrader post-Taxi Driver, filling in the backstory of Jodie Foster's young hooker, probing the seams of the coast, riding the 1970s porn wave from a prudish angle. Sometime collaborator Scorcese went to similar places later in After Hours but nowhere as hard. There's a dash of Roger Ebert's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls in the acting.

Schrader spends the first hour at Christmas in dreary Grand Rapids Michigan with the aim of showing us how dreary and stifling Dutch Calvinism can be. (Barbara Loden in Wanda demonstrated that it doesn't have to be quite this painful.) After this unpromising beginning Scott unleashes his timeless Dr. Strangelove abilities around the 55 minute mark and we're off to the races. About three minutes later he's in authentic Boogie Nights mode with a bogus Burt Reynolds mustache and shirts that even I wouldn't wear. This pivot is way too quick. The camera angles often make him look like Philip Baker Hall in the 1990s: craggy, worn, relentless — I wanted the subtleties (or at least humour) he brought to The Hospital. Call girl Season Hubley keeps up as best she can; they leave the boys far behind. Scott rapidly (too rapidly) evolves beyond private dick Peter Boyle's ability to cage him. There are many tears before bedtime.

Roger Ebert: four stars. Is Schrader having it both ways with his prudish prurience? The ending is blown. Janet Maslin: The Searchers. A man loses control but not his religion. The pivot is "dramatic suicide". She found some humour here.

Leviathan (2014)

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A pointer from Paul Byrnes's recent valedictory. A bleak and unfunny visit to a small town in Murmansk Oblast, Russia (east of Finland) where a small-time local is getting squashed by the mayor. It's a bit like How I Ended This Summer: a slow start before turning into something that gets harder to care about, in this case because the downward spiral is a relentless grind. An old army comrade now a lawyer in Moscow is supposed to help but he inevitably makes things worse. (He has a dirt file on the mayor that we're not shown. It is initially effective and then inexplicably toothless.) The wife is pure sadness. It is mostly unsubtle and offers nothing novel; a little humour would've gone a long way. The cinematography is sometimes great, largely because the location is gorgeous.

The 4WD police vehicle is apparently a 2004 UAZ Hunter.

Paul Byrnes at the time: only four stars of five but "certainly one of the best films of the past year". Manohla Dargis: absurdist, sure, but comedy, no. Peter Bradshaw: five stars.

Fatherland (1994)

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You've read the book now see the movie. What was Rutger Hauer thinking? — not one thing taxed his acting abilities. The revelation of the biggest secret in the Reich is a total bust, and Miranda Richardson's passing of the dossier of evidence to President Joseph Kennedy is pure Hogan's Heroes. The romance was elided. So bad it's bad.

John J. O'Connor at the time: first half OK, second half terminal. IMDB trivia: shot in Prague where the locals were sickened by the swastikas.

Dogs of War (1980)

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Continuing the Frederick Forsyth adaptations. Here he drew on his direct experience of covering wars in Africa as a journalist. Also some idle Christopher Walken completism: I should've learnt by now that he's never great in the lead over feature length.

Walken is sent to a fictional African military dictatorship to determine if mining interests can do business with its ruler. Or perhaps the coup is already being planned. No matter, we know he's going back as he has nothing left to live for. As usual for Forsyth, the bulk is a notionally suspense-inducing logistics exercise where he organises his fellow American soldiers-for-hire (Tom Berenger amongst them), their weaponry and a boat. I found all the stakes so low that I did not pay attention to the details.

Vincent Canby: the screenplay is first rate. I was less impressed by the final battle sequence as everyone seems to be shooting at nothing. Director John Irvin also directed the far superior Alec Guinness vehicle Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in 1979.

Proof (1991)

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Blind cameraman Hugo Weaving finds a mate in dishwashing Rusty Russell Crowe, working at an inner-city Melbourne Italian restuarant. He needs one as his spooky housekeeper Geneviève Picot is fixated on getting his clothes off. Written and directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse; this is her first feature. The milieu is much like Death in Brunswick and not Romper Stomper. It's sorta kooky and fun like Malcolm but not as innocent, so perhaps more Angel Baby. (I mean, whose housekeeper drives a BMW 1600-2?) If only we'd known that this rich seam of Australian movies wasn't going to last.

The plot builds up to the bromance and attempted defloration of Hugo via a cat accident and much rumination on the ethics of lying to blind people. A trip to the Coburg drive-in, where Rusty describes the action to Hugo, has Hugo senselessly probing Rusty's car and provoking some punks (Daniel Pollock among them) into creaming the future skinhead. The stegosaurus on the dash was not amused. Along the way we get shown some of the mutually-abusive relationship between Hugo and Geneviève: it's mostly (blind) man looking at the world, woman looking at the man, especially once they get to the symphony and back to hers. It's roughly a 1950s psychological.

I don't think Australian blokes make friends this way.

Roger Ebert: three-and-a-half stars. Janet Maslin: Hugo for the eventual Martin Amis biopic! All the details at Ozmovies. A maturing of the local film industry from establishing the national identity to everywhere dramas. Luke Buckmaster rewatched it in 2014. Prompted by James Walsh in 2023.

The Day of the Jackal (1973)

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I think I read Frederick Forsyth's classic airport thriller in the mid 1990s. The premise is that some French military veterans felt betrayed by President Charles de Gaulle's acceptance of Algerian independence in the early 1960s and decided that a coup d'état might be the ticket. Forsyth knew this was beyond their skills and had them hire an Englishman.

The book and movie (directed by Fred Zinnemann) are authentically early 1970s: it's fiction but fearfully holds to the major facts of history, making it more Puzo's Godfather than Harris's Fatherland, subbing details for imagination. The cinematography is fine and shows us a France and Western Europe somewhat familiar from the Bond movies of the era. The romance bit felt pro forma. The parallel police detection thread did not strike me as plausible; they never consequentially chase the wrong rabbit. After a few quiet killings the ultraviolence of the conclusion is anticlimactic. Edward Fox does the necessary in the lead but it would've been so much more fun if they'd cast the similarly-stringy David Bowie. As the Jackal he has so many opportunities to pull an exit scam but somehow there is honour amongst these outlaws (for the most part).

Roger Ebert: four excitable stars, "unfold[ed] in almost documentary starkness" and a plot summary. Vincent Canby: by historical determinism/veracity, "the suspense ... must depend on our wondering just how the assassin is going to fail". Which is a spoiler-robust strategy I guess. "The details are minutely observed and, to me, just a bit boring. I keep thinking that although it could have happened, in this case it didn't."

2nd Chance (2022)

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A pointer from Jason Di Rosso who interviewed director/interviewer Ramin Bahrani. They actually spent a lot of time talking about his adaptation of Adiga's The White Tiger. Apparently Roger Ebert was a fan of his.

This is a documentary about the rise and fall of Richard Davis, a bloke from Detroit who pivoted from pizzerias to bullet-proof vests. He soon moved his operation to Central Lake, Michigan where, being the largest employer in the area — think Ford in the early days — he ran things as a personal fief. From the start there's a charismatic cult-leader unreliable-narrator vibe that, combined with his cognitive dissonance, gun fetishes and outlandish unapologetic style, is expected to entertain. See, for instance, Pinshoot. And Australians could maybe consider him something of a self-shooting Ned Kelly.

I guess the narrative centre of the film is the scandal around Second Chance Body Armor Inc's use of the defective (rapidly degenerating) material Zylon in their vests in the early 2000s that soon bankrupted the company. The New York Times yields little about this via its search; there's an article by the Associated Press from 2003-012-26 and a retro on 2006-01-22. But never fear: while "there are no second acts in American lives" his son soon Phoenixed Armor Express from the ashes.

Overall it's a bit of a weird depth to plumb. None of the interviewees really pop except perhaps for his second wife who seemed almost normal. It's hard to parse the history as the most famous material used in these vests — Kevlar — was developed elsewhere, though Wikipedia suggests Davis was the first to go all-in on that material.

Nicolas Rapold. Gonzo.

Zorba the Greek (1964)

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A jag from The Last Temptation of Christ: Nikos Kazantzakis wrote the raw material for both. In black-and-white. It looks unappetising on the tin — a constipated Englishman paired with a Greek high on life — but Anthony Quinn makes it work with a robust performance. Oscar noms all round and some won but not him. Produced/directed/adapted by Michael Cacoyannis.

We begin with Alan Bates, the English writer, trying to get to Crete to reclaim his Greek father's property there. Almost immediately Zorba zeroes in on him and we wonder if Bates is a mark and a homosexual. The movie eventually answers no to both of those, though others must labour mightily to make those revelations. The property turns out to be a lignite mine that has stopped running due to the absence of the landlord, impoverishing the nearby village which holds fast to tradition. Zorba gets off many a good line that leaven some of the heaviness of those traditions and does all the heavy lifting in the bromance. The sentiments are essentially Epicurean so it's mostly in Quinn's delivery.

This was Quinn's next movie after Lawrence of Arabia (1962), or perhaps it was the equally delicious The Visit. The mining scenes got a bit The Wages of Fear, but most of it put me in mind of Ava Gardner's contemporaneous beach activities in The Night of the Iguana: an unguarded joy de vivre. One of these days I'll get around to Karzan's America America.

Vincent Canby.

Pulp Fiction (1994)

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nth time around with Tarantino's breakthrough. Down to #8 on the IMDB top-250 from #7 five years ago. Oscar noms all round but only Tarantino and Roger Avary won for the screenplay.

Roger Ebert: four stars in 1994 and another four stars in 2001 as a "great movie". Loved the dialogue and the elision of the ultraviolence. Janet Maslin was entranced and made it a Critic's Pick.

The Mexican (2001)

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Another of Brad Pitt's misfirings in the lee of Fight Club. Director Gore Verbinski let him right off the leash so most of his scenes consist of pure, repeated Brad Pitt tics in airhead mode. I guess the idea was to draw in the female demographic by pairing him romantically with Julia Roberts but it is not until the final scenes that she stows the full-cliche histrionics and they get all lovey-dovey in a battered old ute in Mexico. (Her taking offence at the idea of anyone enjoying sex and travel is weird given she soon starred in Eat Pray Love.) James Gandolfini comes along for the ride in The Sopranos mode and J.K. Simmons is supposed to be Pitt's mate. Also Gene Hackman eventually explains the whole show to us.

The central thread of the plot is a feeble fable involving a pistol. We're shown its genesis in sepia flashback. As a McGuffin it is uninspired.

Roger Ebert: three unfathomable stars. Stephen Holden: "only about half as funny as it ought to be".

Three Days of the Condor (1975)

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A Robert Redford jag from Spy Game, prompted by some reviewers of that movie. Directed by Sydney Pollack. It's Christmas 1975 in NYC and somehow it hasn't been and isn't snowing. Redford works as some kind of bookworm/researcher for the CIA and when the revolution comes he's out to lunch. His apparent main squeeze, colleague Tina Chen, is the last up against the wall so while he shows us his improbably-mad field skills (for a shiny bum) he's on the lookout for a new one. She takes the form of Faye Dunaway, improbably driving a 1970 Ford Bronco. She eventually succumbs to male-fantasy Stockholm Syndrome (Robert Redford syndrome?) and pops out her most priceless line of all time: "Oh no, I'll help. You can always depend on the ol' spy fucker." It’s like a Le Carre without any attempt at or pretence to subtlety.

America in the 1970s has been so thoroughly documented on film that there's little to see here beyond the story. There is the odd lingering shot of the Twin Towers. Max von Sydow. Down with the CIA!

Roger Ebert: three-and-a-half all-too-believable stars. Vincent Canby. IMDB suggests: Marathon Man, The Parallax View — so, the paranoid aspect of the American polity.

The Innocent (2022)

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Prompted by a good interview with writer/director/lead Louis Garrel by Jason Di Rosso. It's a slight film which shows that French comedy can be a laughing matter. I'm guessing it would be a low-risk, possibly-good, probably-safe date night flick for people just getting to know each other. I felt the first half dragged as the scenario was being constructed: a love-mad mother, a depressed, stalled son, his childhood bestie who drops all the hints, and a future stepfather found in gaol. This was not helped by some dodgy subtitling. The second half cashed the heist setup well enough and had some funny moments in the small as things went as they must.

Jason Di Rosso in written form. A "breezy good time that's hard to find at the movies these days." Autofiction. Claire Shaffer made it a Critic's Pick.

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

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Continuing the accidental mini-Scorcese rewatch. Over two nights as it's just so long, heavy and humourless.

I didn't know what to make of it back in 2004 and I don't know what to make of it now. On the plus side the cracker soundtrack by Peter Gabriel continues to enthral. But this is not great cinema: scene follows scene with clunky framing and editing so far from the fluency of Scorcese's long-take classics (Casino, Goodfellas — which spend most of their time indoors) and often I had no idea where we were or why. (I think Paul Schrader's screenplay, based on Nikos Kazantzakis's source material, generally leant too heavily on the audience's priors. The weaselly disclaimer that it is not based on the Gospels does not help.) The dialogue is too often incoherent: Willem Dafoe's Jesus tells the temple patriarchs that he's there to extend the old law but under mild probing he owns to being the end of it. The first two-thirds mostly just sets up the provocative finale, which drags out the premise of the title by showing us an agonised Jesus on the cross tempted by normalcy: a harem of ladies, a mob of children, food in return for honest toil. And then back to the cross for a quick "It is Accomplished" retconned terminus.

These flaws are exacerbated by the film being shot so obviously in Morocco: the aesthetic is more obviously Muslim than pre-Christian Jewish. The acting is a mixed bag despite the strength of the cast. There's Victor Argo (King of New York, Bad Lieutenant), as a wooden Peter. Harvey Keitel, an especially clunky (Gnostic) Judas. Andre Gregory (My Dinner with Andre) makes for an edgy John the Baptist; if only they'd found room for Salomé. Harry Dean Stanton brought his best Dennis Hopper impersonation as Zealot Saul/convert Paul. David Bowie as Pontius Pilate puts in the worst acting effort of his career. Barbara Hershey, Mary Magdalene.

Roger Ebert: four stars at the time (mostly about the story) and another four stars in 2008 as a "great movie" (mostly colour). Janet Maslin: Scorcese was overwhelmed by his source material. "The promise held forth by the film's beginning, a promise to use drastic and unexpected ideas as a means of understanding Jesus' inner life, gradually gives way to something less focused." The miracle-after-miracle middle is less emotionally compelling than the interiority of the first movement.

Quiz Show (1994)

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A Robert Redford jag from Spy Game. There's nothing Hollywood likes more than to talk about TV, cf golden-era Good Night, and Good Luck, decline-into-cynicism Network, Broadcast News, etc. and of course the Oscars ceremonies. The game show was also a thread of Magnolia. The period and father/son dynamic put me in mind of Malick's The Tree of Life. The references to Nixon (as vice president) and interest in democratic accountability recall All the President's Men and the endless stream of nostalgic movies (The Last Picture Show, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, etc. etc.)

At its core this is some kind of bromance between professor/contestant Ralph Fiennes and investigator/lawyer Rob Morrow as the latter makes his bones figuring out what's going on at Twenty-One in the 1950s. The whole show loses momentum regularly, and it is often left to erstwhile champ John Turturro to gee things up. Nevertheless Redford's direction elicited excellent performances from all the actors; the odd scene or line delivery (Sputnik makes for good humour) shows what might have been with a better story to tell.

Roger Ebert: three-and-a-half stars. What's the story about Geritol anyway? Post-truthism started a long time ago. Janet Maslin. Ah yes, that opening Chrysler showroom scene.

Goodfellas (1990)

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nth time around with Scorcese's classic. Still #17 in the IMDB top-250. The Internet Movie Cars Database tells me that Ray Liotta's main squeeze Lorraine Bracco drove a Volvo 244.

Roger Ebert: four stars at the time and another four stars as a "great movie". Vincent Canby: a Critic's Pick.