Thursday, June 20, 2013

James Gandolfini 1961-2013

“In life, it’s not men that count, it’s the man.”

It is with sadness this morning that I awoke to news of the death of James Gandolfini at the age of 51 of a suspected heart attack while holidaying in Rome with his son. It is far too young an age to bid farewell to anyone but particularly for somebody who brought such talent into the world and through the entertainment he provided made the everyday lives of millions around the world just that little sweeter. He was a peerless talent and one who’s passing will long be lamented.
Mr Gandolfini was born into a working class New Jersey family in 1961. His father was an Itailian immigrant who had a number of jobs including bricklayer and stone mason while his mother was a cafeteria chef.  He was not somebody born to be an actor and indeed worked as bartender and a nightclub manager before he was introduced to acting at the age of 25 by a friend who took him to an acting class. His talent and hard work was such that he soon began to build a career as a character actor making his Broadway d├ębut in a 1992 revival of Tennessee Williams classic A Street Car Named Desire.

Like so many men of his stature and ethnicity, it was as playing Italian-American tough guys that Gandolfini first found fame. He brought a brutal charm to the role of Virgil, a Mafia hit man in Tony Scott’s 1993 film True Romance, based on a script by Quentin Tarantino. From there he built a steady career as a character actor playing in small roles in big Hollywood pictures like Crimson Tide, Get Shorty and Night Falls on Manhattan. He was however still largely an unknown when in 1999 David Chase cast him to star in his new HBO Mafia-themed family drama The Sopranos as Tony Soprano.  He said of the role in 2001:

I thought it was a wonderful script…But I thought they would hire someone a little more debonair, shall we say, a little more appealing to the eye.

It was a role that made him famous across the globe and offered him the chance to bring his great acting talent to bear on a character worthy of it.  To me, what made his performance so compelling was that he made Tony endearing even lovable at times but yet never compromised on the fact that he was a hard man, a gangster who could be brutally violent and display little remorse afterward. The Sopranos went on to change how people viewed television, pushing the limits of what was thought possible.  By all accounts Gandolfini was a lovely man in person but yet he seemed to inhabit the role of Tony completely on the screen. If you have yet to see it, take the time. Across six series The Sopranos brings the viewer on a journey through an epic saga of family, loyalty and the corruptive power of crime.

For James Gandolfini, The Sopranos brought him fame, wealth but above all recognition of his talent. For me his performance will remain as one of the best I’ve ever seen for many years to come. It was not however the limit of his talents. In the years since that final cut to black brought an end to the series and perhaps Tony Soprano himself, he has taken on a wide variety of roles to great acclaim. He was a profane and irritable armchair General in the British satire In the Loop and the voice of Carol in the big screen adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book Where the Wild Things Are. He played a damaged and grieving man opposite Kristen Stewart in the much underappreciated Welcome to the Rileys.

He was nominated for a Tony award for his performance as an angry parent in the Broadway drama God of Carnage opposite Jeff Daniels who said this morning:

If Broadway has a version of a guy you want in your foxhole, Jim Gandolfini was mine. During our time together in 'God of Carnage,' we played 320 performances together. He didn't miss one. Sadly, I now miss him like a brother.”

Last year he delivered an entertaining turns as the CIA Director in Katherine Bigelow’s account of the decade long hunt for Osama Bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty. It was a different type of role and hinted at the imposing gravitas he now brought to his performances as he aged. He continued to work with HBO, producing a number of documentaries for the channel including Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq and was next to be seen on a new drama series called Criminal Justice.
He is survived by his wife and two children. I leave the final words to Sopranos creator David Chase and I include my favourite scene from the show below.

He was a genius. Anyone who saw him even in the smallest of his performances knows that. He is one of the greatest actors of this or any time. A great deal of that genius resided in those sad eyes. He was my partner… He was my brother in ways I can't explain and never will be able to explain."

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Flick of the Day: The Iceman

I like surprises. I especially like surprises when I go to the cinema. I like entering the theatre with little or no expectations and being pleasantly surprised by the two hour traffic of my stage. Of course such things are relatively rare in this age of endless interconnectivity and near constant reviews of everything that a human being can consume. Generally you know what to expect. Today was a nice exception.  
Michael Shannon has developed a career out of playing intense and often brooding characters to great effect. He was the crazed young man who is perhaps the only truly sane character in Revolutionary Road, he was the family man driven over the edge by his nightmares in Take Shelter and the crooked cop having a bad day in Premium Rush. Such is his talent that with the right roles he will surely become a star. Today he plays Richard Kuklinski, a real life Mafia hit-man who built a career on a pathological coldness yet maintained a relatively happy family life until his arrest in 1986.
Our tale opens in Jersey City, New Jersey in 1965, Richard is a quiet and brooding young man attempting to woo Deborah played by Winona Ryder. The pair fall in love and marry though Deborah remains unaware that Richard works as a pornography distributor on the fringes of the underworld.  He soon displays a propensity for great violence at the least provocation and comes to the attention of local boss Roy Demeo played with a vicious charm by Ray Liotta. Richard becomes a man who removes the little problems that Roy encounters. The years pass and the body count rises and meanwhile Richard and Deborah have  had two daughters who seem to worship the ground on which their father walks. Business has been good to Richard and he has become a wealthy man. He explains his largesse to his unsuspecting friends as being down to his skill as a foreign currency trader. Things are almost too good and so it proves as the actions of Roy's deadbeat friend Josh Rosenthal, played by an incredibly sleazy David Schwimmer, conspire to drive a wedge between Roy and Richard. Richard's life begins to spiral out of control and as his well appointed facade falls apart so does his grip on his psychosis.
What separates today's flick and indeed Michael Shannon's performance is that unlike so many films it does not in any way seek to glamorise the lives of what are deeply disturbed men. They do not live normal lives like the rest of us, they live violently. It is the violence and the underlying psychosis which anchor their lives. Richard Kuklinski is a very scary individual, always on the edge of violence. Yet so is Ray Liotta's Roy Demeo and Richard's fellow contract killer Mr. Freezy played by Chris Evans. They are men who hurt small animals, men who engage in domestic violence. They are in short, not to be admired or normalised in the manner so many gangsters are in hagiography-like biopics. 
The film is blessed to have a really excellent supporting cast with fine turns from the likes of Robert Davi as a Mafia boss, John Ventimiglia who is perhaps better known as Artie Bucco in The Sopranos and a blink and you will miss it turn from James Franco. All in all this is a very compelling look at a man consumed by violence. It manages to both detail his crimes and his love for his family which I don't doubt was genuine. Some of the most interesting scenes involve the interplay between Richard and his unassuming family. Shannon's performance makes you feel like anything could happen. 

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