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In Memory of Danny Aiello: Nate’s Top Ten Performances

Danny Aiello has left us today and with him goes a level of class, talent and charisma that was unparalleled in Hollywood and independent cinema. He had the kind of frame and presence that saw him embody many Italian mafia and tough guy roles but he also had an angelic, gentle essence which came in handy in gentler turns, as well as some of the tougher ones where he brought a softer edge out. Rest In Peace Danny, you were a wonderful, scene stealing, truly great actor and here are my top ten personal favourite performances:

10. Vincent Dianni in Danny Aiello III’s 18 Shades Of Dust aka Hitman’s Journal

I chose this because it’s one of his only lead roles and it was directed by his late son who passed away before him, sadly. It’s a classic low budget NYC crime flick starring Danny and William Forsythe embroiled in a feud between a crime family and the owner of a restaurant. Danny embues his character with a moral complexity and has terrific chemistry with Forsythe.

9. Captain Vincent Alcoa in Pat O Connor’s The January Man

I’m not a fan of this film and in my opinion it downright sucks, but there are some amped up, ham fisted portrayals to marvel at, Aiello’s turn as a hilariously aggressive police captain included. He’s clearly having fun and blowing off steam and gets one of the best, most maniacal “fuck you!!!” moments in cinema, directed at Kevin Kline’s weirdo detective.

8. Tony Rosato in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II

It’s just one quick scene he as a mob hitman here but he famously improvised the line “Michael Corleone says hello” that Coppola loved and kept in the film. Not to mention he gets one gnarly attempted murder and drag the body off frame moment, he might as well have been saying that Michael Myers says hello.

7. Roth in Paul McGuigan’s Lucky Number Slevin

Another tiny cameo but here he serves as warning to one of the characters that events about to be set in motion can’t be undone once the decision is made. Roth is a racetrack bookie who knows a shady bet when he sees one and provides ample foreshadowing before the narrative reaches an event horizon of misfortune.

6. Sal in Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing

An Italian pizzeria owner who has had enough, his hotheaded actions basically spur on a riot and push a racially charged portion of the city into riot. Everyone in this film is in performance overdrive, sweaty, fired up and ready for conflict, Danny included as the kind of dude who is always a few inches short of blowing his fuse.

5. Al in Kevin Dowlands’ Mojave Moon

Everyone’s a little loopy in this offbeat indie dramedy. Danny’s Al gives young Angelina Jolie a lift from the big city out to a strange Mojave Desert enclave where he cultivates odd relationships with her, her mom (Anne Archer) and her mom’s unhinged whacko boyfriend (Michael Biehn). This is one of those meandering little experiments about nothing in particular save a gaggle of wayward individuals interacting, often in bizarre fashion. Danny headlines charmingly, has wonderful chemistry with Jolie and blesses this offbeat script with his undeniable talent.

4. Mr. Johnny Cammereri in Norman Jewison’s Moonstruck

Johnny is sweet, good natured and just a bit dumb. He has the misfortune of seeing his fiancé fall for his younger brother but it’s all handled in a lighthearted way in this charming romantic comedy. He gives the role a childlike charm whether he’s aloofly proposing to Cher in a crowded Italian restaurant or using the Adam & Eve parable to explain skirt chasers.

3. Tommy Five-Tone in Michael Lehmann’s Hudson Hawk

What a misunderstood, undervalued gem of a film. Bruce Willis and Danny are Hudson and Tommy, two NYC cat burglars dragged into a loopy global caper all the way to Italy and beyond. The film’s tone is akin to something like The Looney Toons, with both actors displaying a rambunctious, fun loving personality and together embodying one of the funniest and one of my favourite bro-mances in cinema.

2. Louis in Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder

I used the word angelic in the above summary of Danny specifically for this role. Louis is massage therapist, confidante, guardian angel and only friend in the world to Tim Robbins deeply haunted protagonist and the kindness, compassion and protective energy he emanates is a lighthouse of positivity in a sea of disturbing horror imagery that is this film.

1. Tony in Luc Besson’s Leon The Professional

This is the role that’s most special to me, the one I always think of when someone brings Danny up and exists in a special, classic film that I grew up with and watch at least a few times a year. Tony is the ultimate gangster with a heart of gold, father figure and mentor to hitman Leon (Jean Reno), dose of tough love to orphan Mathilda (Natalie Portman), both of whom he has beautiful chemistry with. He’s the neighborhood sage, consummate wise guy and gentleman mobster with a self titled kind streak. The core Aiello performance for me.

-Nate Hill

Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn

It’s always cool for two of my top ten films of the year to find their way to me inside a week. A few days ago it was The Lighthouse and yesterday it was Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn, a brilliant, sprawling noir epic that sees this accomplished artist behind the camera for only the second time in his career and in front of it for the first time since I can remember… I think the last thing I saw him in was that fourth Bourne film that didn’t even have Jason Bourne in it. He roars back into action commendably here as both writer and director in a passioned period piece that has a lot to say and one of those old school two plus hour runtimes to say it in as well as the kind of jaw dropping, star studded ensemble casts they just don’t bother to assemble much anymore.

In adapting Jonathan Lethem’s novel, Norton rewinds a 90’s setting back into the 50’s and comes up a winner playing Lionel Essrog, a private detective whose friend, mentor and father figure Frank (Bruce Willis lingers in a cameo you wish was more) is murdered by shady thugs whilst investigating the kind of lead that can only end in bloodshed. Lionel suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome in an era where medication, compassions and science are sorely lacking and has thus sadly earned the moniker ‘freak show’ by his peers. That doesn’t stop him from using gut intuition to continue Frank’s work, leading him down the obligatory NYC noir rabbit hole of Harlem jazz clubs, red herrings, betrayals, corrupt government officials and bursts of sudden violence meant as warning but there to juice up the intrigue. It’s a fairly serpentine web of lies and decades old secrets involving many characters brought to life by one hell of a cast. Gugu Mbatha-Raw scores soulful points as an activist whose involvement runs far deeper than even she knows. Alec Baldwin gives a terrifying turn as an impossibly evil, truly bigoted mega city planner whose agenda to bulldoze poorer communities shows little remorse in character and allows the seasoned actor to provide what might be the best villain portrayal of the year. I didn’t think I’d be raving about Willem Dafoe two times in one week (he crushed his role in The Lighthouse) but the guy is on fuckin fire, bringing cantankerous warmth to a vaguer role I won’t spoil. Also in the mix are Michael Kenneth Williams as a mercurial trumpet player, Bobby Cannavle, Dallas Roberts, Ethan Suplee, Fisher Stevens, Cherry Jones, Robert Wisdom, Josh Pais, Peter Gray Lewis and Leslie Mann.

Considering that Norton’s director debut was a Ben Stiller romcom, its fairly heavy lifting to pivot over towards a two and a half hour period piece adapted from a revered novel but he pulls it off and then some. He directs the actors with snap and ease so we get organic, underplayed yet lasting impressions from each performance including his own, a very tricky role that never comes across as a gimmick. His affliction is never conveniently absent when the scene requires it and he makes sure to find the frustration, humour and lived-in aspects of Lionel’s personality. Baldwin’s character serves to represent the callous nature of real estate development conglomerates these days and the tendency to gloss over less fortunate folk like invisible downtrodden, or downright see them as lesser people. Norton, as both actor and director, gently explores this world with a compassion for areas in which some have more than less and focuses on themes until we get to see a powerful morality play unfold within the already tantalizing central mystery. This film sort of came out of nowhere (I don’t remember any marketing outside like a month before release?!) and isn’t making huge waves yet but it’s a powerful, funny, touching, detailed, beautifully acted and directed piece, one of the best thus far of the year.

-Nate Hill

Abel Ferrara’s King Of New York

Abel Ferrara’s King Of New York might simultaneously be Christopher Walken’s scariest, most intense and also withdrawn and detached performance, so idiosyncratically does he a draw his portrait of Frank White, a dangerous career criminal fresh out of the pen with high ambitions on ruling the NYC urban jungle, take no prisoners. It’s one of the moodiest, most dour crime films set in the big apple, but it finds a dark heart of bloody poetry, frighteningly funny menace and an ultimate resolution that has you undecided on whether crime really does pay. Walken’s Frank is a strange man, surprisingly introverted for a guy who commands an army and takes on rival gangsters for the control of city blocks, but it’s in the quiet, dangerous charm that he finds his effectiveness, and as crazy as he still is here, it’s a fascinating far cry from some of his more manic, well over the top turns. There’s three would-be hero cops out to get him by any means they can, cocky hotshot David Caruso (before his talents fell from grace with god awful CSI Miami), Ferrara veteran Victor Argo and a coked up Wesley Snipes. They go so far over the line trying to nail him that the only thing separating them from the crime element is a badge, which seems to amuse Frank as he eludes them at every turn. Walken’s merry band of assholes is an armada of gangbangers and drug chemists which include the likes of Steve Buscemi, Giancarlo Esposito, Paul Calderon, Roger Smith and a fearsome Laurence Fishburne as his first mate, young and rambunctious before his acting style gelled into something decidedly more cucumber cool (hello Morpheus). The violence and threat thereof is palpable, as Ferrara whips up a frenzy of boiling conflict that makes the epicentre of Hell’s Kitchen feel like the eye of a very angry hurricane, while still keeping the mood to a laid back thrum, it’s stylistic and tonal bliss the whole way through. Cinematographer Bojan Bazelli shoots the city with an oblong, lived in, hazed out and very un-cinematic feel, throwing us right into the dirty digs with this troupe of miscreants and crooked cops, while composer Joe Delia makes gloomy, haunted work out of the score, especially in Frank’s darkly poetic final scene. As for Walken, the man is a dynamo and this may be his best work to date. He makes Frank a harrowing demon with humanity that catches you off guard when it breaches the surface of his opaque, unreadable persona, a suave, psychotic spectre of the NYC streets who won’t go out unless it’s with a bang, and won’t ever back down on his way there.

A crime classic.

-Nate Hill

Phil Joanou’s State Of Grace


Phil Joanou’s State Of Grace had the unfortunate luck of being released in 1990, the same year that also saw Scorsese’s Goodfellas and the third Godfather film. It’s hard to gain your footing when that kind of momentum is surging about, but this film is as good as the others, and deserves recognition or at least some kind of re-release. Set in the blistering inferno of Hell’s Kitchen, NYC, it’s a violent tale of Irish Mobsters, undercover cops, betrayal and murder, set to a smoky, mournful Ennio Morricone score that lingers in the air like smog. Sean Penn is Terry Noonan, a deep cover operative who returns to his childhood neighbourhood to reconnect with old friends, and dig up buried grudges. Ed Harris is Frankie Flannery, ruthless gangster and former ally, while Gary Oldman plays his hotheaded brother Jackie with a tank full of nitrous and the kind of unpredictable, dynamite fuse

potency one expects to see from a David Lynch character. The three of them are on a collision course set in the grimy streets of New York, bound by old loyalties yet destined to clash and draw new blood. Penn shares the screen with his once wife Robin Wright here, looking lovely as ever. There’s also supporting turns from John Turturro, John C. Reilly, R.D. Call, a geriatric Burgess Meredith and an unbilled cameo from James Russo. Penn, Harris and especially Oldman are like flint sparks, a trio that won’t be stopped and light up the screen for a spellbinding, visceral two hours until their eventual confrontation, hauntingly shot by cinematographer ” in the midst of a bustling St. Patrick’s Day parade. This one has been somewhat lost to the ages, like a number of other stellar crime dramas I can think of from the nineties. The cast, score and Joanou’s thoughtful direction make it an unforgettable piece of work. 

-Nate Hill