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Welcome to The Fourth Wall, CHIRP's weekly e-conversation on cinema. This week's subject is the heist thriller Good Time.
This edition is written by CHIRP Radio volunteers Kevin Fullam and Clarence Ewing.
"Bank heists are performed by professionals. Amateurs, don't try this at home -- and especially not in an actual bank." -- K.J. Fullam
What would Danny Ocean & Co. make of the sibling duo of Connie and Nick Nikas? The ramshackle robbery engineered by the latter at the outset of 2017's Good Time is probably an accurate depiction of what would occur if one of us tried to knock over a bank and had, oh, an hour or so to prep beforehand.
The ultra-suave Rat Pack this is not. Connie (Robert Pattinson) is a deadbeat who, while dragging along his mentally-handicapped brother Nick, clumsily robs a NYC bank to the tune of $65,000. Unbeknownst to him, the money is marked, and thanks to explosive dye packs, the two of them are soon literally marked as well. Nick is woefully unequipped for the ensuing getaway; he quickly gets hauled in by the police and is set to be shipped off to Riker's Island. As most of the stolen money is ruined by the dye and thus not enough to cover the bail, Connie is forced to ad-lib an assortment of schemes over the next 24 hours in the hopes of freeing him... with misfortune befalling any unfortunate soul who gets sucked in along the way.
Directed by brothers Josh and Benny Safdie, Good Time is shot with a gritty, frenetic style that boasts a brutal authenticity. It was one of my favorite films of 2017, but Your Mileage May Vary depending on how polished you prefer your thrillers. There are neither flashy getaways (as in Baby Driver) nor fast-talking (a la the Oceans series), and the Big Apple resembles the sort of town we saw in Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. The lack of polish isn't limited to the cinematography, as a number of key roles in the film were played by non-actors. (Case in point, Nick was played by co-director Benny.)
In thematic ways, the tale reminded me of another movie we discussed a while back, the 2008 Australian neo-noir The Square. In both stories, the protagonists were caught in self-destructive spirals, where each bad decision necessitated a move which often left them in even worse shape, all in the vain hopes of extricating themselves from their predicaments.
I never caught any of Pattinson's work in the Twilight series (what a shocker, right?), and thus Good Time was my first exposure to his acting chops. My verdict? He's the real deal, and carries the film from beginning to end, oozing seedy desperation the entire while.
What'd you think of the film, Clarence? Were we as the audience inclined to root for Pattinson's Connie? (To be fair, Connie wasn't an entirely irredeemable miscreant -- his love for his brother shined through, although Connie's views as to what would benefit Nick were rather misguided at best.)
I also mentioned the crumbling state of NYC (Queens here, specifically) earlier, and afterwards felt a special appreciation for our town's Streets and Sanitation Department. Do you think this atmosphere lends a unique vibe that would've been missing if Good Time had been set in a place like Chicago? Can you think of any favorite films which strongly reflect the atmospheres of the cities in which they're set?
When it comes to Chicago, The Blues Brothers and Ferris Bueller's Day Off immediately come to mind. In how they showcase the city as a American music mecca (the former) as well as a surreal middle-class municipal playground (the latter), I just can't imagine those movies being made anywhere else. Also, several of Woody Allen's early films (I'm thinking of Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, and Annie Hall) are unique to New York City, that sprawling urban jungle with its population of anxious, over-educated natives.
I feel that Good Time, which I really enjoyed, could only work in a city like New York or Los Angeles. I liked the closed-in effect achieved with the camera framing – most of the shots are tight close-ups in closed-in spaces that create the kind of claustrophobic feel people experience in such a crowded environment. Chicago, which obviously doesn't lack for crime, would be too neat and tidy to really sell the gritty desperation of this kind of story. Here in the Midwest, there would be too many ways out for the Nikas brothers, physically and economically.
Thanks to Turner Movie Classics, I've been on a film-noir kick recently, and Good Time is right at home with those old b-movie stories of desperate people making bad decisions. Connie is as compelling a protagonist as I've seen in a while. He's resourceful, charming in his own way, and knows how to think on his feet. [He's the Ethan Hunt of low-lifes...!] What did you think of the character of Nick? If he wasn't in the film, do you think we would be less sympathetic to Connie? Considering the amount of collateral damage done to various other characters in the movie, does Connie deserve any sympathy?
Like you, Kevin, I've never seen Pattinson's work in the Twilight series. Watching him in this movie, though, I'd agree that he's got some serious chops. It got me thinking about other talented actors who spent their careers working on projects that...let's just say won't be getting Classic Film consideration any time soon. Reese Witherspoon* and Burt Reynolds** come to mind for me. Can you think of any others?
*Former Indie Movie It-Girl who's since made just as many Sweet Home Alabamas as Big Little Lies.
**A natural leading man who spent the height of his career in the ‘70s and ‘80s goofing off on Smokey and the Bandit-level flicks.
Whenever I see trailers for hit films of yesteryear like that of Smokey and the Bandit, I start to harbor dark thoughts about decades gone by... but then, the '70s also gave us The Godfather, The Exorcist, and Star Wars. And there's probably not all that much differentiating the Smokey series from some of the modern action franchises besides CGI and better production values. Thankfully, I've only seen Reynolds and Witherspoon in the best of their works -- Deliverance for the former, and Election and Wild for the latter.
The whole question of "talented actors languishing on popcorn projects" is a great one, Clarence. Here are a few names for consideration:
* Sylvester Stallone -- Sly displayed serious chops in both Rocky and First Blood, and then cashed in as both the Italian Stallion and Rambo evolved into caricatures during the following decade. His turn as a lone-wolf detective in 1986's Cobra took the Dirty Harry motif pretty much as far as it could go, and probably wasn't that far removed from the McBain parodies we saw a short while later in The Simpsons. And while Stallone has received critical praise in his return to the role of Rocky Balboa in the Creed series, he's also been banking on '80s action nostalgia via the Expendables franchise as well.
*John Travolta -- Not only did Travolta almost single-handedly usher in the disco era via Saturday Night Fever, but he garnered an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor to boot. Then came Grease... OK, not my thing, but not a terrible film, right? But by the end of the following decade, he was paying the rent by starring in the Look Who's Talking trilogy centered around babies with wise-cracking inner monologues. Oy. After a career resurrection via Pulp Fiction, Travolta again largely found himself in forgettable films that nevertheless were big at the box office: Wild Hogs, The General's Daughter, and Broken Arrow, to name a few.
[There was also Face/Off. I haven't yet seen it, though the fact that it garnered critical acclaim despite an absurd plot (Travolta switches faces with Nic Cage) has to count for something.]
*Superhero franchise stars -- Has Robert Downey Jr. been on cruise control because of his work in the Iron Man and Avengers series? Ditto with Jennifer Lawrence, with The Hunger Games and X-Men films? What's the policy here? As far as the latter, I can't judge, as I've boycotted THG due to the fact that the author ripped off the Japanese Battle Royale...
Getting back to Good Time -- I'm not sure if Connie does deserve any of our sympathy. First, ripping off a bank isn't exactly a novel idea, and so if you're going to pull it off, you would seem to need a much more creative hook than simply throwing on a couple of masks and asking for dough. (Not to mention, this is NYC, with cops and potential witnesses all over the place.) Did we ascertain exactly why he needed the money? Is there ever a good reason to rob a bank outside of "someone is holding a loved one hostage and ordered me to rob this bank or else?" And did Connie really need to drag his brother along? What was the upside in bringing him? In hindsight, I have lots of questions here.
I do like your descriptor of Chicago as a "surreal middle-class municipal playground." And I'll offer up two more Chicago-based films -- High Fidelity and Drinking Buddies. I have to think that the former is well-known to CHIRP audiences for its focus on music, as well as the spotlight it shined on some classic local music venues (like the late, great Lounge Ax). But in light of the fact that it was based on a novel which was set in London, was the cinematic adaptation distinctly Chicago-
I never did see Drinking Buddies. I f*cking hated High Fidelity. So much so I have to admit it must have had something going for it if you subscribe to the idea that the opposite of love isn't hate but indifference. I feel that movie did more to marginalize the idea of independent music in the public imagination than any other recent work of fiction. Who would possibly want to get within 50 miles of the kind of conceited, hipper-than-thou man-children like the ones played by John Cusack and Jack Black? There's a small subplot concerning a budding romance between two of the characters (played by Todd Louiso and Sara Gilbert) that beautifully shows the power of music to bring people together, but it's completely overshadowed by Black's high-octane scenery chewing. And I feel like Chicago didn't come off at all well in terms of the cinematography. I've never seen the city look so dingy and lifeless as in that film.
Did you know that Stallone was nominated for Oscars for acting AND writing the screenplay for Rocky? It feels to me like he and Travolta got to the top of the heap at the perfect time when a high-profile actor with name recognition could put butts in seats without working terribly hard at the craft (as much as it pains me, we've got to add Johnny Depp to the list too).* All the more reason, I think, to respect actors like Daniel Day-Lewis, Sean Penn, and Tom Cruse. That's right, I said Tom Cruise. He left the world of rationality behind a while ago, but at least he pushes himself artistically (Eyes Wide Shut, Magnolia, Vanilla Sky), even in the confines of his popcorn fare (his constantly trying to top himself with his next thrilling and completely unnecessary Mission Impossible stunt).
[*And I agree with you, Kevin. I'm not in the target audience for a movie like Grease, but even I can see that it delivered on what it wanted to do and then some.]
In Robert Downey Jr.'s case, I wonder if his well-known struggles with addiction might have something to do with his choice of roles. It's interesting that his most high-profile roles are Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes, two characters known for their superior intelligence and near invincibility. Maybe it's a case where playing characters who are bulletproof might make him more comfortable as an actor, in that he doesn't have to venture to places he doesn't want to go? Well, that, and the money... lots and lots of money.
I had just about the same list of questions about Good Time as you did, Kevin. But I would be disappointed if at some point a Good Time sequel was released that tried to answer those questions. Getting the details would almost spoil the mood of this cool, left-field film. My goodness, we need more of these, especially since the major studios are putting all of their eggs in fewer baskets by betting on the next fantasy franchise. It is comforting to know that even in this age of the comic book blockbuster, there are still outlets for the small and mid-size projects.
Did you see the movie? Want to add to the conversation? Leave a comment below!
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