[WARNING: This post contains heavy SPOILERS from Avengers: Infinity War. If you haven’t seen the film, please turn back now or check out our spoiler-free review!]
The newest Marvel blockbuster, Avengers: Infinity War, continues to rapidly rise up the global box office rankings, nearly capturing a billion dollars in its first week. It’s been immensely popular, even among critics, with an ending that might not have been entirely unexpected, but has certainly spawned its fair share of memery.
Opinions on this latest entry in the MCU have tended to be fairly strong here at Goomba Stomp, and so we’ve invited our writers to sit down and share their thoughts. This resulted in some interesting answers:
“A Boring, Rote Film”
Avengers: Infinity War is a boring, rote film that is carried by Josh Brolin’s magnetic performance as Thanos, as well as a cast of charismatic actors bantering with each other. While the film goes to interesting places by its conclusion, they’re also places that are undercut by having no stakes.
Thanos’s motivations are fleshed out, so when he eventually has the Infinity Gauntlet at its full potential and kills half the galaxy’s population, it doesn’t feel cheap or dumb. He’s a madman who has seen the pros and cons of his plan — even if one of the cons is that he could die himself. But once his plan is completed and he snaps those huge fingers, there’s a real lack of significance to the moment. Why? Because Doctor Strange has established in his “dying” breath that everything is going according to plan, and the one potential sequence of events that could lead to The Avengers living is in motion.
Combining both Doctor Strange’s comments with how the movie establishes the way the Reality and Time stones could change things in the Avengers’ favor, it’s hard to care about anything that happens in Avengers: Infinity War. I love the boldness of the ending, but it feels just as dumb as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’s death of Superman moment. Comic books have always circumvented death in many lazy ways, but to see the movies also stoop so low is just getting tiresome. Of course, maybe the characters will all actually stay dead despite already announced sequels and the fact that the majority of remaining characters have been in the MCU since the first phase.
The other major issue is that there’s no real emotional pull with any specific character’s death. Opening with Loki’s death is bold, but is played off by Thor as possibly another ruse, so the emotional charge he lacks is mirrored in the audience. Thanos’ attachment to Gamora is explored in Infinity War, but not enough for us to care about her death. Instead, I cared more about Thanos’ conflicted feelings about killing her, which is just another reason that Infinity War is Thanos’ movie. Brolin brings life to a story that seems so fixated on pretending its all about death.
“A Culmination of Ten Years of World Building”
I wasn’t expecting much from Avengers: Infinity War. Call it superhero fatigue or a lingering bitterness over the way Justice League turned out (I defended it like a good DC acolyte, despite definite problems), but I couldn’t seem to muster up much excitement for the MCU’s uber team-up event in the months leading up to its release. I had a kind of intangible dread regarding Infinity War, a dread that didn’t turn into a coherent fear until I saw Ready Player One. After sitting through two hours-plus of pop-culture references and cameos being thrown at the screen non-stop, hoping that one or two would land, I finally saw a vision of the kind of clusterf*** I worried that Infinity War would turn out to be.
Thankfully, the Russo brothers had my back. Despite being the biggest act of corporate synergy ever put on the silver screen, Infinity War never feels bloated or overstuffed. In fact, it feels downright intimate at times. When I heard the film would feature over sixty characters from all throughout the MCU, I assumed the whole thing would end up like Transformers — nothing but huge fight scenes where you can’t tell who’s who, and after a few minutes of artless noise and action you don’t care. If you’ve seen Avengers: Infinity War, you know that what ended up on the screen couldn’t be more different. Sure, there are over sixty characters, but the story only focuses on about a dozen, most broken up into three main groups all either trying to get magic rocks or protect the magic rocks they already have. The other characters show up when needed, and when they do, it’s organic and doesn’t feel shoehorned in just to fill a quota. Hell, they even added new characters, and everything was still easy to follow, never feeling like it was trying to do too much.
Infinity War was exactly what it needed to be: the culmination of ten years of world building and interconnected narratives, and a showcase for a villain that’s finally worthy of throwing down with earth’s mightiest heroes.
There are two main complaints that people seem to have with the movie and I disagree with both. The first is that Infinity War doesn’t do enough to explain what happened in the eighteen films preceding it. This is just absurd, like going into Return of the King and saying “Who are these two little people and where are they taking that ring? Where did this Gandalf guy come from, what’s his story?” It’s like sitting down to watch the last season of Game of Thrones and being mad that they didn’t explain the previous seven seasons. How else are you going to know who this Jon Snow guy is if the show doesn’t tell you, right? Look, I get that certain Marvel movies are fairly self-contained, especially near the beginning, but even more recent entries like Black Panther can be enjoyed with little back story. However, the Avengers films are always supposed to be large crossovers, bringing multiple characters and story lines together for a larger-than-life slobberknocker. In an age when everyone has access to an unlimited amount of information and most can access it by reaching into their pocket and pulling out a small, glass rectangle, going to see Avengers: Infinity War without at least a cursory understanding of the events leading up to it reveals a level of willful ignorance usually reserved only for politicians. We’ve been doing this for ten years people, you should know by now if these Marvel movies are your jam or not.
The second complaint has more validity: the deaths in Infinity War mean nothing because Marvel has already announced future films starring the deceased characters. Look, I don’t think any die-hard Marvelites think Black Panther, whose first solo movie was practically a cultural revolution, is really dead. I mean, he’s definitely dead, but he’s comicbook dead. He’ll be back in Avengers 4: Psych! We Have a Time Stone Idiot! along with Spider-Man and most of the other characters who bit the bullet. Here’s the thing though: if you can immerse yourself in the film the way that Marvel hopes that you can, cheap pops or not, those deaths are going to give you the feels. Anyone who sits and watches Peter Parker desperately grasp at Tony Stark as his body turns to dust — begging like a frightened child “I don’t want to go!”— and doesn’t shed a tear, has a heart of stone…infinity stone! Ba-dum ching.
“Absolutely Worth It”
It has been 10 years since the Iron Man movie made its big screen debut, and the buildup to Avengers: Infinity War has been absolutely worth it. With the smallest gripes in regards to some plot decisions and how certain characters got shoved into the background, this is a phenomenal film — one of the best summer blockbusters we’ve had in a long time.
Infinity War does a great job balancing all the emotions at play. The film doesn’t feel like it’s trying to cram humor or bleakness down anyone’s throat, but allows those emotions to come organically. The Thor/Guardians team-up is sincerely hilarious, making for numerous laugh-out-loud moments. We are also given a decent backstory for Thanos that sincerely set up his “Mad Titan” mentality.
I’d have to say that my two favorite characters are Thor and Thanos. There are many other characters I enjoyed (and some who I wish got more attention), but these two really nailed their roles. Thor has a great arc in his quest to seek revenge against Thanos, and in regards to Thanos, I don’t think the MCU has ever had a more terrifying villain. Whereas Black Panther’s Killmonger was a remarkable antagonist given his societal context, Thanos presents fear. From the moment the film begins, there’s that immediate sense that no one wants to mess with this guy.
Avengers: Infinity War makes for an excellent first part. It ends with many questions in how massive changes will be resolved, with a sequel having some immense shoes to fill.
“Lazy and Boring”
Considering the oversaturated, clinical, factory-produced film landscape created by the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s a bit of a feat to have a feature like Avengers: Infinity War show up. Not only does the film spit in the face of audience expectations for the majority of the events that happen, but it’s refreshing to have a story that explores things beyond typical plot conveniences, actually spending time with the “baddies” just as much with our heroes.
Aspects of the first hour truly feel more like a classic comic book crossover than any other instance in the MCU before, and it also works a hundred percent in not caring too much for audiences not familiar with the MCU, feeling a lot like how a comic book crossover should. I’ve seen complaints about how the movie is too confusing for those not familiar with the MCU up to this point, but that’s silly. Making actual use of the MCU after having built it up for 10 years in such a way is the only proper way to tell this story.
However, these few conventions that Infinity War breaks are not worth congratulating all too much; it’s a bit like congratulating Nabisco on their creation of Reduced Fat Oreos. The underlying problems that make the vast majority of the MCU movies an empty fulfillment are all still here. The writing — at times snappy, campy and fun — is cringeworthy when everything has to stop for a character to add in an out-of-place attempt at pop culture humor.
Having painted themselves in a corner due to a lack of explanation for various plot holes and inconsistencies in how certain powers work (like say, Dr. Strange’s portals or the Infinity Gauntlet itself) and how certain characters would act (the Vision part of the story is poorly written and frankly idiotic on the part of the characters), the writers are forced to just ignore these glaring issues to move the story along. This is without really getting into the halfhearted ending that should make everyone roll their eyes with a unanimous “yeah, right.” Sure, Spider-man and Black Panther are dead. Sure. Lol. I tried to restrain my laughter, especially at Rocket reacting to Groot’s death (the second time Rocket has lost him) as if though he lost some loose change down a drain.
It’s not like these inconsistencies couldn’t have been addressed; at times, addressing them would actually make the world a lot more believable, and would make for a better investment in the story. But it’s easier to simply ignore it and depend on the fans to come up with their own “actuallys.” It’s just lazy and boring. Plus, just like most movies set in the MCU, Infinity War is ugly to look at — overly “cinematic” and like looking through a layer of post-production Vaseline. The CG is ridiculously cartoonish at times, not to mention that Thanos — the character with perhaps the most screen time — looks like a bootleg G.I. Joe figure. For a film based on such a vibrant, imaginative, and colorful comic book world, it’s a bit disheartening to see it come to life in such a generic way.
What I’m saying is that Infinity War is one of the better features in the MCU, but it’s still an MCU feature. No matter how hard it tries, it won’t escape that. It won’t be anything more than that, and that’s unfortunate.
“I Just Don’t Understand”
I’ve never been a massive Marvel fan. I didn’t read comics as a kid, and I grew up watching animated series like Batman Beyond and Teen Titans. So when the first few Marvel films rolled around, I didn’t understand the hype. The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man were okay as far as generic action flicks go, and I personally thought Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger were just downright bad films. Avengers was fine, but like I say, I hadn’t grown up with a love for these characters, so seeing them all in the same movie didn’t elicit any excitement. However, over time this changed. Guardians of the Galaxy was a great film, and after Civil War I was hooked on the MCU just like countless others.
The injection of comedy into their films and the refinement of the action-packed hero’s journey formula led me to fall in love with Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2, Thor: Ragnarok, and Spiderman: Homecoming. Despite being late to the party, I was just as hyped for Infinity War as every other comic book fan seemed to be, which is why I’ve been utterly astounded by the universally positive reaction the film received. I genuinely believe that besides the original Thor, this is the worst MCU film to date.
Infinity War had some incredibly funny moments, but too much humour was injected into the wrong places. The conversations between the Guardians and Thor worked well and fit the characters, but Banner’s ‘erectile dysfunction’ issues with the sulking Hulk were frankly cringe worthy. There is also a massive disregard for previous character development in Infinity War. After Taika Waititi spent Ragnarok evolving Thor past merely being the man with the hammer, he spends the entirety of Infinity War looking for a replacement.
This doesn’t just happen to Thor; besides Thanos, who is a fairly interesting and complex villain, many characters’ personal developments are tossed aside for no reason. Vision, one of the most uninteresting characters in the MCU, is thrust into the spotlight, and Star Lord, my favourite MCU character to date, is made absolutely hateable. The new additions to the MCU are also pointless. Peter Dinklage provides some of the worst acting I’ve seen in years, and Thanos’ henchmen, beings heralded as some of the most fearsome foes in the galaxy, are almost entirely eliminated in joke sequences.
The film’s biggest issue, however, is its plot. Much like Justice League, Infinity War tries to cram in far too much for the sake of fandom, yet still manages to tell a paper-thin story. I’ve heard many movie goers praise Infinity War for its courageous decision to kill off so many of its cast, yet these deaths are meaningless. Almost every character killed has already had an announced upcoming sequel in their own franchise, and they’ve even gone as far as saying that the Spiderman: Homecoming sequel will be set straight after Avengers 4, and will star Peter Parker…one of the characters killed off in this film. So it’s pretty obvious to me that there are no real stakes, and these characters will all be brought back.
I just don’t understand. A paper-thin plot, bad jokes, and pointless deaths; Infinity War doesn’t even come close to capturing the magic of the MCU’s latest outings, and instead feels like an episode of Dragon Ball Z with a bigger budget.
“One of the Greatest Superhero Films of All Time”
There’s one moment in Infinity War that really stood out to me: a rather quiet scene between Thanos and Gamora, set aboard the former’s enormous ship. Gamora is standing around looking sullen when suddenly here comes Thanos, giant gauntlet of death and all, offering her…a bowl of food? “I thought you might be hungry,” Thanos says before handing the bowl to an agitated Gamora, who pitches it into his throne with disdain before remarking about how she always hated his throne. “So I’ve been told,” the Mad Titan remarks with something approaching humor.
While the major hubbub surrounding Infinity War has situated around Thanos’ finger-snapping balancing act at the end, it’s the small, almost tender moments like these that give the film its incredible poignancy. Rarely — especially in superhero films — are villains given the chance to develop into something more than flat personifications of evil that do little but drive the plot forward. That was the problem that Avengers: Age of Ultron had — a flat villain that, while well acted by James Spader, wasn’t very interesting, and developed little over the course of the film.
In contrast, scenes such as this, as well as Thanos’ sacrifice on Vormir, help to flesh out Thanos’ character in ways that make it apparent that he feels he is sacrificing for the good of the universe. He truly believes, despite the horrible genocide he is committing, that he is doing the right thing by maintaining “balance.” The film’s adroit explanation of Thanos’ internal logic helps tremendously to sell him as a fully-realized character.
Yes, the battles are incredible (as always), but this time they play background to Josh Brolin’s masterful performance as Thanos, a performance that may not be on quite the same level as Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight, but is still an excellent portrayal of how complicated true evil is. The hilarious interplay between the motley crew that makes up the MCU, and even between Thanos and the heroes (such as when he remarks to Gamora that he likes Star-Lord), help to round out the characters in ways not seen in their stand-alone films.
In the end, Infinity War is a testament to what the comic book genre can aspire to. In lieu of last year’s disappointing Justice League, Infinity War is a reminder that despite over ten years of constant superhero films, there is still room for improvement in the genre. Indeed, while Infinity War’s ending is begging to be undone by Avengers 4, it still takes risks rarely seen in superhero films and in the end is not only Marvel’s greatest film, but also one of the greatest superhero films of all time.
“This Was Pretty Much Everything That I Could Have Wanted.”
I knew we’d witnessed something when my girlfriend and I spent the entire forty minute car ride home talking about Infinity War after we’d seen it. We’ve been to the cinema so many times, and we’ll usually chat about the movie, but then that gives way and we’ll end up on something else — dinner plans, work, whatever. This time we talked about Infinity War the whole way home, and even a little in the house. We talked about Thanos, and about how the dead heroes could come back, how brisk the movie felt despite being nearly three hours long, and about the various funny and awesome moments sprinkled throughout an otherwise darker — and sadder — Marvel movie.
People are moaning about certain aspects of this picture, but I don’t think a lot of the criticism is necessarily fair. Here, the common complaints are that Infinity War doesn’t make any sense without seeing the other movies, and that there are no stakes because we don’t believe that the heroes are in any legitimate peril. Well firstly, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is, essentially, a television show masquerading as a series of big budget blockbusters. Television spent years chasing cinema, and now, after the radical improvement in the quality of TV as a storytelling medium, cinema is chasing television. You wouldn’t tune into the last episode of Breaking Bad and complain that you didn’t know who anyone was, and so you can’t really complain that the 19th movie in a shared universe (and the fourth major crossover event in the franchise) doesn’t give a backstory on everybody involved.
As far as stakes are concerned, oh, we care about stakes now, do we? We walk into 90% of our movies knowing that the good guys are going to win and the bad guys are going to lose. That’s how it works. Nobody believes that this monologuing supervillain is the one that’s finally going to kill James Bond. We know Bond is going to break out of captivity, ice the baddie, and then make some sort of hilarious quip about it. Similarly, we know that our Marvel heroes, even those that we see die on screen, consider the traditional definition of mortality more as a guideline than a rule, and that’s okay.
Assuming (cynically, but almost certainly correctly) that some of the superheroes that turn to dust at the end of Infinity War will return for future big-money movies doesn’t change the fact that this is the first time we’ve seen the collective of MCU heroes beaten as resoundingly as they are in this movie. Here, the Avengers lose — not slightly, not only just, but resolutely, and catastrophically. Here, the bad guy wins, and regardless of how inevitable it is that some of our heroes will return, that was a bold move for what was always going to be one of the highest grossing movies of all time.
If you don’t like Marvel movies, Infinity War will do absolutely zilch to change your mind. But as a fan of the franchise, this was pretty much everything that I could have wanted. It strikes a good balance between joking around and acting like this seriously-really-this-time might be the end for some beloved characters. It forms team-ups between heroes that we’ve never seen working together before, giving long-running characters like Tony Stark and Thor fresh faces to bounce off with largely amusing results. It finally gives the MCU a villain worth caring about, with Thanos acting as the glue that holds the many disparate elements of the convoluted narrative together. And it all builds up to a fairly sensational climax in which, surprisingly, if you don’t read comic books, half the universe is obliterated, and we have to witness poor Spider-Man disintegrating in Tony Stark’s arms. Yeah, I know he’s going to come back, probably with some Time Stone jiggery-pokery, but I’ll still never get over the “Mr. Stark?” bit. Roll on Avengers 4.
Overall, its pretty obvious that we have some different opinions here at Goomba Stomp. However, the questions remains, what did you think of Infinity War? Sound off in the comments below!
Sundance 2020: ‘The Nowhere Inn’ Is a Toothless Tale of Musical Madness
St. Vincent and Carrie Brownstein’s film isn’t committed enough to craziness to make a good midnight movie or funny enough to be worth your time.
The term “midnight movie” is somewhat amorphous; it can include everything from legitimately great films (Eraserhead, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Night of the Living Dead) to utterly terrible films (The Room, a variety of low-budget horror standbys). What brings these high and low cultural artifacts together is a lack of concern about taste. They’re transgressive, extreme, sometimes thought-provoking — by the end, you might feel as if your heart is about to crack through your ribcage, or you’ll be embarrassed at the thought of anyone noticing just how hard you laughed. It’s unlikely that anyone will experience any of these feelings by the end of the St. Vincent and Carrie Brownstein–starring The Nowhere Inn, a midnight movie in aspiration only that’s neither extreme enough to shock nor funny enough to delight.
The Nowhere Inn begins earnestly enough as a pseudo-documentary purportedly directed by Brownstein, now expanding her many talents to include directing (she’s also the lead guitarist of the seminal rock band Sleater-Kinney and best known as an actor for her work opposite Fred Armisen on Portlandia). Her subject is her friend, singer and fellow guitar virtuoso St. Vincent (Annie Clark), who’s on tour supporting her critically acclaimed album Masseduction (2017). Early on, Brownstein imagines her documentary to be a mix of concert footage and revealing behind-the-scenes moments, but her dictate to “be yourself” backfires when it turns out that Clark doesn’t do or say anything that exciting off stage. The footage is mostly ab workouts and discussions of how her bandmates like to eat radishes and anything that “tastes like dirt.” It’s only when Brownstein urges her friend to be more interesting off stage that the film begins to take shape — and reveals its biggest failings.
Hoping to please her friend, Clark adopts her St. Vincent persona full-time, becoming a chic rocker ice queen. But it’s not just her practiced aloofness; she hires actors to play her family because she doesn’t want to speak about her real father, who went to prison in 2010 for fraud. She also plays up her relationship with Dakota Johnson, playing a hilarious version of herself, presumably inspired by Clark’s real-life relationship with Kristen Stewart. But all of her deceptions seem designed less to make her seem more interesting in the film than to drive Brownstein insane.
Clark and Brownstein have said their film (which is directed by Brownstein’s Portlandia collaborator Bill Benz) is inspired by Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s Performance (1970) about a rocker who begins to influence and warp a gangster who’s holed up with him. It’s not a hard connection to make, but there’s none of Performance’s menace in The Nowhere Inn. Every moment in which it might finally tip into madness is undercut by lukewarm humor that generates modest chuckles at best. Clark is fitfully convincing as an actress, but she pulls back when she needs to go big. Brownstein is a more compelling figure, but she’s stuck playing the straight woman for most of the film, which doesn’t give her comedic talents room to flourish. The two are legitimately hilarious in their few scenes with Johnson, who’s totally committed to the cameo part, but most of The Nowhere Inn feels like a slog. The film was always intended to be fully scripted (written by Clark and Brownstein), but by the end, I wished they would have taken the on-screen Brownstein’s advice and just made it into a concert film. There’s nothing in The Nowhere Inn that lives up to St. Vincent simply rocking out on stage with her guitar.
Remembering My Friend, Sonny Grosso
A Tribute to Sonny Grosso
From this past Thursday’s New York Post:
“Former NYPD detective Sonny Grosso, whose police work with partner Eddie Egan was used as the plot for the classic 1971 cop flick The French Connection, died Wednesday. He was 89…Grosso’s foray into Hollywood began with the The French Connection as he and Egan consulted on the film and served as the real-life inspiration for fictional detectives Popeye Doyle and Buddy Russo. He went on to become a prolific producer and consultant for television and movies, working on shows such as Kojak, Night Heat and Baretta.”
It’s always odd reading an obituary piece of someone you know, even odder when it’s of someone you consider a friend. You realize just how much of the person you knew isn’t in those few column inches. There are some biographical facts, a tribute sentence or two, but I look at the obits for Sonny Grosso and I wonder, Where’s Sonny? Because he’s not in those pieces.
I considered Sonny Grosso a friend, but then he was one of those people that after your first meeting which ran long because he couldn’t stop telling stories you felt like you’d been friends a long time. And after you’d known him a long time, you felt like you’d always known him. I got to thinking of him like an uncle who lived far away so you didn’t see him too often but were always happy to hear he was coming to town.
I considered Sonny Grosso a friend which, because we were both Italian, meant there were times that even though I loved him I wanted to strangle him, and even as I wanted to strangle him, I loved him. Unless I miss my guess, there were times I suspect he felt the same way.
I don’t remember exactly when I met Sonny. I believe it was some time in the 1990s. We were introduced by Bill Persky, a TV writer/producer/director with whom I’d done some work and who – God bless him – was always looking for ways to juice what laughably could be considered my “writing career.” He thought because of Sonny’s police background and an affinity for related material, which I shared, we’d make a compatible couple.
It never quite happened; close, but not quite. But it didn’t stop me from coming by to talk about this and that and to quickly become part of Sonny’s huge – and I mean huge – circle of friends, because it seemed to me everybody Sonny came into contact with became a friend. That was him. “All the good people in the business,” Sonny once told me, “are good with people.” You didn’t have to know Sonny long to know he was good people.
He would regularly invite me and my wife to an annual dinner he held down in Little Italy as a commemoration to his mother, and there was the time he invited me to just hang out with him at his table at Rao’s, a culty Italian restaurant in East Harlem (this is why it’s culty; tables are “assigned” to regular customers and whether or not you ever get a table depends on whether or not co-owner Frank “Frankie No” Pelligrino decides you should have a table; Sonny had one, the Clintons didn’t get one).
I would see pictures of a slim, almost gawky Sonny from his days on the police force and always have trouble connecting that to the burly, huggable teddy bearish guy I knew. And he was a hugger; maybe it was the Italian in him. I never saw him more huggably teddy bearish than when he met my daughters. I used to work at HBO, and on one of those bring-your-kids-to-work days, after work, I decided to swing up to Sonny’s office and introduce him to my little girls. He was incredibly sweet to them, and after a few minutes you would’ve thought he was their uncle. He would always ask about them after that, always, and they still talk about him even though that was something like fifteen, sixteen years ago.
I’d be lying if I didn’t admit it wasn’t always love and kisses between me and Sonny (he was a kisser, too; God love my people!). One long-simmering frustration, shared with me by Bill Persky since this was why he’d brought us together in the first place, was Sonny wouldn’t consider me for writing work. He was supportive of my work, wonderfully complimentary, but because my c.v. was so lightweight (and, yes, it was), he was concerned how network execs would react to me as part of a project.
“Sonny’s not afraid of going into a room where there’s a guy with a gun,” a mutual friend told me, “but get him into a room filled with guys in suits, and he gets nervous.”
He didn’t think much of a lot of the decision-makers on TV. Over the nearly four decades he was involved in the entertainment business, he’d judged it changed, and not for the better. “The guys who used to run it ran the whole show, they knew everybody. The guys who took their place hadn’t been involved at that level. They were like being the coach’s son, assuming they knew the game, but they didn’t…
“I work at a network, and this person here is my assistant. I leave, that person gets elevated. But that person doesn’t have the same talent. There’s been an overall letdown in talent.”
One time I asked him about the difference between his days on the force and working in television. “You’ve got this lieutenant, you hate this guy, he’s a prick, but you know when you go through a door he’s going to be there with you. It’s not like that in TV; nobody’s got your back.”
So why stay in the business? “It’s like a broad. She’s got great tits, a great ass, great legs, but an ugly face. You say to yourself, ‘Ok, I’ll live with it’.”
(For a while there, it seemed like every time I asked Sonny about something, the response was always in the form of how whatever the topic was was “like a broad.” Like when I asked him what it was like working with Eddie Egan. “I loved the guy,” he told me, but Egan – who, I got the impression, could be a bit of a hot dog – rubbed a lot of other cops the wrong way. When Sonny was partnered up with Egan, he’d find dog turds in his station mailbox. “Finally, I had to talk to these guys. I told them, ‘I know you guys got a problem with him, but this is like a broad I’m married to; maybe you don’t like her but she’s my wife so you gotta show respect.”)
One of those times when I wanted to strangle Sonny was over a feature screenplay Bill Pesky and I had written together about the Italian POWs kept in the U.S. during WW II. It was a forgotten historical footnote that struck a chord with Sonny. It was an inspirational story about people overcoming their prejudices, it was about Italians in America, it had a mix of the funny, the sweet, the tragic, and even a touch of romance. He loved it and wanted to try to get it made.
After a possible co-production arrangement with some Italian entities came apart, Sonny called Billy and me up to his office to talk about another possibility. He wanted to pitch it to Hallmark.
Billy and I were not happy. That would mean chopping anywhere from a quarter to one-third out of the script to get it to fit into a TV movie slot, and it being Hallmark, we knew that in that process, the touch of romance would become the main story and in the schmaltziest of ways. We thought the piece deserved better, so we said no. Sonny got pissed. We got pissed. Each side got convinced the other side didn’t “get it” so everybody got more pissed.
End of project.
(To be fair, after years of not being able to find a home for the project and with two kids in college, it occurs to me we should’ve taken Sonny up on his offer; a paycheck for a diabetically sweet and corny Hallmark romance would’ve been better than no paycheck at all.)
The other time I wanted to strangle Sonny was the one time he did send work my way. He was developing a TV movie project, but his writer was sick. Sonny was racing a deadline and needed a draft or the project was dead. He wanted me. The catch was the writer was a Name and his name was one of the reasons a network was interested in the project. The network couldn’t know the Name wasn’t writing the draft; I’d have to be a ghost.
I was ok with that. I’d get to prove my talent for Sonny and that might pay off somewhere down the road, and I’d get the always-desired paycheck. I wound up doing two drafts for Sonny, but then it occurred to me that a film made from those drafts was going to be more me than the Name. I wanted some kind of on-screen credit. Sonny got pissed because I didn’t officially exist as far as the network was concerned. I got pissed. We both got so pissed we didn’t talk for the longest time. A year, maybe. Maybe more.
Then the movie came out. By that time, that particular network was out of the TV movie business and it was clear from the lack of support they gave the airing that they were just burning this thing off. When I watched it, what was also clear was that the script had been run through an awful lot of reworking to the point where, even under WGA standards, I doubt I would’ve rated a credit. So, it’d been a big fight about nothing.
And, I missed him.
I apologized for having been a pain in the ass (after all, technically speaking, I was the one who had welshed on our arrangement), and it seemed almost instantly with Sonny, in that particularly Sonny way of his, as if none of this had ever happened. Sonny understood: “All you fucking writers are crazy.”
Two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman, who once called screenwriting “shit work” – the equivalent of housework in that it was necessary but invisible and disrespected – said he considered himself a novelist who also wrote screenplays (if you’re looking down on me, Mr. Goldman, a little mercy if I don’t quite have it word perfect). In retrospect, I think of Sonny as a cop who worked in entertainment.
He worked in TV and film almost twice as long as he’d been on the force, had won a few awards, and even turned out one bonafide classic: the completely un-Sonnyesque Peewee’s Playhouse. But in his 22 years on the force, he became – and remains – one of the most decorated cops ever to serve in the NYPD, and the famous “French Connection” case made by he and Egan was, at the time, the largest heroin bust in U.S. law enforcement history. He made Detective First Grade faster than anyone in the history of the department. When I would go up to Sonny’s cluttered offices, there were more police memorabilia on the walls and shelves than Hollywood stuff.
My day job is as a college instructor, and as such I’ve taught a number of military service veterans. My one-time Marine students taught me that no one is ever an “ex-Marine.” An ex-Marine is someone who was thrown out of the service. All others who served are former Marines; they’re always going to be part of The Corps. That was Sonny and the cops. He was never an ex-cop; he was a former police officer, and as such, he never lost his cop’s instincts.
A few days before Christmas in 2003, Sonny was at his table at Rao’s, had gone out to his car to get some bottles of wine he had as gifts for his dinner guests, when two mob guys at the bar got into a tiff. As mob tiffs tend to do, this wound up with one guy shooting the other guy. Sonny immediately grabbed one of the ladies at his table who worked with him, pulled her outside to safety before going back into Rao’s; not bad reactions for a seventy-odd-year-old guy with bad knees.
I think of this and I’m reminded of the scene in Ronin (1998) where Robert De Niro deliberately knocks a coffee cup off a table to test one of the other crew of ex-spies recruited for a job. When the other man nabs the cup before it hits the ground, he mutters, “Old instincts die hard.”
Thinking of Sonny, I’m thinking for him they never died.
I may not have gotten much screenwriting work from Sonny, but I did get a lot of material out of him. I have a police novel coming out this summer, and some of it takes place in New York in the early 1960s, and a lot of it in New York in the early 1980s. Sonny was always available for a talk, telling me what it was like to be on the job in those days. And, over the years of hearing his stories, I had a better handle on the policeman’s mindset, even took specific things Sonny had said and put them into the mouths of my characters.
More directly, he was always available for an interview for an essay I was writing. With other people, I could do an email Q & A, but with Sonny, it had to be a phone conversation, because, God love ’im, the man loved to talk. I can’t remember any conversation with Sonny that didn’t digress and wander and would’ve gone on forever if I hadn’t had to be somewhere else at a certain time.
But besides being fun and often funny, those chats were always an education, and they helped make my pieces publishable. Some of those pieces were written for the guys who now edit Goomba Stomp.
Talking about the making of The French Connection, Sonny told me about prepping Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider (playing fictionalized versions of Egan and Sonny respectively) for one of the movie’s most memorable set-pieces; rousting an all-black bar that’s a hangout for low-level dope peddlers.”
“‘Eddie must’ve done the thing in the bar a dozen times in those three weeks (we were with the actors). I’d seen him do it a thousand times before.’ According to Grosso, during the first week, the actors would stand outside the bar while he and Egan went inside; the second week, the actors would be inside with the detectives while they rousted the bar. ‘The third week, we waited outside while Gene and Roy did it!’”
On how the entertainment industry had changed over his years in the business:
“I find it sad that you and I have a conversation where I say, ‘Where’s the place for a Capra?’ and you say maybe we couldn’t even get The French Connection made today. Maybe you could make it today. But Popeye’d have to be way better looking. And they’d give him a girlfriend. And there’d have to be more action. Lots more action…Somebody said to me, is the problem that there are too many cooks spoiling the broth? The problem is, there are too many people in the kitchen who can’t cook.”
On how the heart of any story is a character the audience wants to spend time with:
“The shooting (in The Godfather) and all that bullshit was window dressing. What you cared about was that family, what Michael (Corleone) did for that family, and what the family did to him, his brother betraying him (in The Godfather: Part II). That’s the stuff you cared about. Don’t get me wrong. You need the window dressing! It’s great you got the goods in the story, but nobody comes in because you got Bon Ami (fogging) the window. You gotta have the shooting and the good-looking guy and tits, but, in the end, does (the audience) want to spend time with this guy? You could do a show about a dog catcher and make it work if you get the right guy.”
Interviewing him about Point Blank, the true account of an anti-corruption investigation gone tragically awry he co-wrote with Philip Rosenberg. I asked him, “What can an author learn working with a cop that he/she can’t get from research?”
“Six million fucking things…It could be a tennis player or a bowler or a writer, it doesn’t matter, but the real guys bring so many things that are interesting…”
I lost my friend Sonny Grosso this week. And if he was still alive, I’d want to strangle him for leaving.
Sundance 2020: ‘Kajillionaire’ Finds the Sweet Side of Scamming
Miranda July’s film turns an oddball film about homeless scammers into a deeper meditation on longing and abandonment.
Miranda July is a polarizing director, one whose detractors label her the “epitome of trendy indulgence,” and whose boosters find her doses of magic realism moving and refreshing. I’ve been in the latter category, particularly when it came to July’s second feature, The Future, one of my top films of the past decade. With her third feature, Kajillionaire, she expands her potential as a comic director, while still finding resonant, bittersweet notes.
Kajillionaire stars Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger, and Evan Rachel Wood as a trio of barely-homed Angelenos constantly in search of their next buck — and their next scam. Robert and Theresa (Jenkins and Winger) seem like they might have been burnt-out hippies or disillusioned New Agers (they pose as professors at one point), while Wood plays their withdrawn and tomboyish daughter. She dresses in loose-fitting sweats and wears her hair down to her midriff and parted down the middle just enough to reveal a hint of her face, which is all she cares to display. They live next to an absurd bubble factory in a decrepit office building that leaks foam like clockwork, but most of their day is spent on the streets, scamming passerby or stealing packages from the post office in hopes of finding cash, or at least something they can return for money.
Their steady routine seems to work well enough, even if they’re a few months behind on their already astoundingly low rent (at least for LA). But amid another con, they befriend the bubbly Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), who’s fascinated by their lives. She has a job and enough money to afford a small apartment, but something about their nomadic lifestyle seems adventurous to her, even if they don’t live that way by choice. There’s an instant conflict between this new surrogate daughter and their real daughter (I won’t spoil Wood’s character’s hilarious name), and it’s not clear until the end if their connections are real, or just a long con.
Unlike The Future, which departed the bounds of time and space to dramatize the heartbreak of a separation, Kajillionaire hews closer to the world as we know it, even if its characters are absurd outliers. Jenkins effortlessly switches from charming curmudgeon mode to lecherous old man, and Winger’s detached mother reveals chilling, if hilarious, depths. But the film belongs to Woods and Rodriguez, who find a wonderful repartee when they’re forced to work together. As in most of July’s work, there’s a moment where it might seem a bit too precious, but there’s a deeper sense of longing hidden beneath. Wood, in particular, seems a bit one-note at first, but Rodriguez eventually breaches her defenses to find what makes her tick. It’s a stunning cinematic transformation to cap off one of the most delightful films of the year.
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