Tuesday, May 14, 2013

JANE AUSTEN'S MAFIA/THE CREW: Blu-ray (Touchstone 1998-2000) Mill Creek Entertainment

A spirited, occasionally clever spoof of just about every mafia movie you’ve ever seen – as well as a wicked jab at such iconic movies Jaws, The English Patient, Jurassic Park and Forrest Gump - Jim Abraham’s Jane Austen’s Mafia (1998) spins its goofy yarn about ‘disorganized’ crime with all the aplomb of a glorified Saturday Night Live skit, infrequently outstaying its welcome, but on the whole retaining its feel good with a few meandering dry spots factored in. The Abrahams, Greg Norberg, Michael McManus screenplay is an unprepossessing claptrap whose homage to The Godfather parts one and two is so transparently obvious yet strangely salvageable.
Jay Mohr stars as Anthony Cortino; a would-be mafia chieftain who inherits this syndicate after his father, Don Vincenzo Armani Windbreaker Cortino (played by Jason Fuchs as a precocious accident-prone boy back in Italy and Lloyd Bridges as an equally bumbling old man living in America) – sometimes referred to as Don Cortisone – is shot 47 times by an assassin disguised as a priest (Richard Abrahams) during his son Joey’s (Billy Burke) wedding to “some Italian girl”. The Don survives, only to be offed by his pint-sized nephew, Chucky (one of the film’s less successful homages; this one to the horror cult classic - Child’s Play). Anthony is in love with Diane Steen (Christina Applegate); a doe-eyed whimsical idealist who fears that she will always be “just a Protestant chick who never killed anybody” if she marries into the Cortino clan.
After the opening credits that have Anthony being blown up in his car (a complete rip off of Scorsese’s Casino, with its only distinction being that Mohr’s flailing buffoon does some cheerleading with a pair of pom-poms and also completes a slam dunk into a basketball hoop while sailing through the flames) we regress to the 1930s; to the Italian province of Salmonella. Here, the local peasantry are preparing for the Festival of the Olives, complete with nuns juggling genoa salami, a Pope on stilts and Miss Pimento; their resident beauty queen, riding atop a float next to Jeopardy game show host, Alex Trebek (I confess, this last in-joke utterly escapes me).   
Young Vincenzo offers to take a large package for his father, a Sicilian postman named Luigi (Anthony Crivello) to the lavish estate of the local mafia chieftain Don Ruffo (Stefan Lysenko) who is in the middle of a passionate seduction when the boy arrives. Ruffo is displeased by the intrusion but becomes enraged when Vincenzo drops the parcel, revealing that it contains cocaine. Ruffo releases his ‘guard sheep’ who take one sniff of the white powder and become as docile as…well…sheep. Ruffo then tries to shoot Vincenzo with his shot gun, only to snap off his own thumb and use it as a bullet instead. Vincenzo gets away but is discovered with his family at the Olive festival where Luigi is shot, falling off the wagon – literally - while Vincenzo’s mother (Sofia Milos) blames his collapse on his alcoholism; “Twelve step program my ass!”
Vincenzo is hidden in a donkey’s anal cavity and taken to the docks as just another migrant stowaway aboard the steamer, Il Pacino, get it? Instead, he trips, becoming entangled in a fishnet and falling overboard, swimming the length of the journey to Ellis Island where he is identified by an immigration officer by the Armani windbreaker he is wearing. Vincenzo briefly meets Jenny (Allyson Call) – another newly landed immigrant. The two share a moonlight wish upon a star, with Vincenzo’s being instantly fulfilled as Jenny’s cleavage exponentially inflates to reveal a set of very perky nipples.
Flash forward to Joey’s wedding. Anthony introduces Diane to the family. She’s polite and plucky but decks Joey in the chops by accident. Joey is psychotic; self-indulgent and becoming hooked on cocaine after rival Don Gorgoni (Vincent Pastore) offers the aged Vincenzo a ground level ‘piece of the action’ but is turned down because Vincenzo mistakes the investment as non-dairy creamer. After Vincenzo is riddled with bullets, Anthony beats sprinter Flo-Jo to his father’s side. Diane and Anthony part over his intension to kill Gorgoni for the attempt on his father’s life. Meanwhile, Las Vegas’s Don Cesar Marzoni (Tony Lo Bianco) helps Anthony hide out, making him the manager of The Peppermill – a posh casino and resort. But he also sets Anthony up by introducing him to the femme fatale, Pepper Gianini (Pamela Gidley). Asked by Anthony about her background; “Any Sicilian in you?”, the tart and very sly Pepper replies, “Not since last night!”  Despite this auspicious introduction, Pepper and Anthony quickly become lovers and later wed. Anthony brings Joey into the Peppermill as thug muscle. But the psycho is so ramped up on cocaine that he cannot even accurately assess who is cheating the house at poker, shocking virtually everyone except the culprit – including all of the dealers and cocktail waitresses - with an electric cattle prod at Anthony’s behest. Worse for everyone, Joey – who is exceptionally well endowed - has begun an affair with Pepper. When Anthony discovers them in their flagrante delicto he is livid. Attempting to shore up their fractured fraternal relations, Joey turns to confront his brother, accidentally knocking over a very expensive vase with his still erect penis.
Afterward Joey and Pepper plot to rid themselves of Anthony by having him blown up in his car. Don Vincenzo Cortino dies after being sprayed with some DDT by Chucky. However, Anthony has survived his assassination attempt, returning for his father’s funeral horrifically disfigured. His grey-skinned cadaver-like appearance repulses all of the attendees and the priest who take their turn spewing projectile vomit on the casket (The Exorcist, anyone?) and Anthony decides to take his revenge on all those who have challenged ‘the family.’  He sends his mother (now played by a humpbacked Olympia Dukakis) to the Peppermill. She devours a bunch of broccoli before turning her Spanks toward a lit candle in Pepper’s suite and breaking wind; thereby blowing up her daughter-in-law. Anthony also has a special parcel sent to Joey’s home from ‘Steven’s Pet Shop’ (a spoof on Jurassic Park, with baby velociraptors emerging from the package to tear apart Chucky). Joey is exiled to Fargo where he establishes a male fertility clinic. Finally, Anthony sends Fatso Paulie Orsatti (Paul Hammond) to impersonate Michael Flatley during a Vegas styled review of Riverdance, where he decapitates Don Marzoni by kicking his head with his steel-toed tap shoe.
Anthony, who has miraculously recovered from his wounds (all but a Band-Aid on his chin), now pursues Diane who has since become the President of the United States and is within arm’s reach of achieving world peace. She forgoes this monumental achievement to marry Anthony instead, particularly after discovering that – in her absence – she has become a mother (don’t ask…just run with it). Anthony introduces Diane to her son (also named Diane and played by T.J. Cannata). After their wedding Diane is outraged to learn in the press of the hits Anthony carried out right under her nose. Yet, a simple denial from Anthony is all that is required to reset her outrage. The film ends with a minor character masquerading as an Eskimo and harpooning Barney – the loveable children’s dinosaur.
Jane Austen’s Mafia has its moments, but a goodly number of its jokes turn rancid or become moderately lame to downright wan regurgitations of stuff we’ve already seen elsewhere. Throwing a litany of predigested lowbrow fluff at the screen and hoping something will stick – and it occasionally does – only serves to remind just how little there is to appreciate beyond this diluted silliness. The parody becomes anemic; the spoof losing its fizz almost immediately; the humor not nearly as gut-busting as oddly suppressed and repetitively mind-numbing. The characters are cardboard cutouts at best, with about as much relevancy as a Harvard lampoon. Mafia isn’t funny so much as it’s ironic and strangely sad and that’s a shame.
But even it seems like highbrow pop art compared to Michael Dinner’s The Crew (2000); a woefully mismanaged and undernourished mishmash. Barry Fanaro’s screenplay cataclysmically mangles its scenario – that of four over-the-hill wise guys reduced to working a variety of retail service gigs just to hang on to their ramshackle South Beach Florida apartment on the cusp of being remodeled into a swanky upscale hotspot for the perpetually buff from the world of the anatomically gifted. We meet our four ‘retired’ mobsters; Bobby Bartellomeo (Richard Dreyfus), Joey ‘Bats’ Pistelli (Burt Reynolds), Mike ‘The Brick’ Donatelli (Dan Hedaya) and Tony ‘The Mouth’ Donato (Seymour Cassel) on the front porch of the hotel, lazily ogling the firm bodied set parading past with modest disdain.
In a retro-fitted flashback prologue that is way too long and utterly pointless we learn how all of ‘the crew’ acquired their nicknames; none of this background info ever referenced again in the movie. When the fellas learn that they are likely to be evicted from their shared digs because of sky-rocketing rent they decide to take matters into their own hands. Mike, who has since become a mortician’s assistant, steals an unclaimed cadaver from the morgue, with the intension of shooting him in the lobby; thereby frightening the residents away which will also cause the landlord to drop the rent. The only problem is that the corpse turns out to be the late father of Raoul Ventana (Miguel Sandoval) a Columbian drug lord who promises revenge for the…uh…murder.
In the meantime, Tony – a man of very few words (okay, practically none), but an incredible zest for…well…shall we say, other recreational activities…takes up with Ferris (Jennifer Tilly) whose real name is Maureen Lowenstein; a busty stripper with the I.Q. of a moth but an enterprising sense of larceny to get back at her stepmother, Pepper (Lainie Kazan). After Tony inexplicably confesses to Ferris that he and the boys are responsible for planting the body in the hotel lobby, she blackmails the lot into plotting Pepper’s murder so that she can inherit her late father’s wealth and estate. The plan goes awry, predictably, when the boys – who have no stomach for killing – decide instead to kidnap Pepper and torch the house. They plant a skeleton stolen from the science lab to fool the police and Ferris into thinking Pepper has died in the fire.
Two problems; first, no one thinks to examine the skeleton – which is not real but a plastic replica with a tag clearly identifying it as being ‘Made in China’. Second, the flames from the fire inexplicably carry over to the house next door belonging to Raoul who now believes that one of his rivals is trying to send him a message or simply rub him out. In the meantime, police detectives Olivia Neil (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Steve Menteer (Jeremy Piven) are hot on the trail of the first crime; stopping to casually interrogate ‘the crew’ about their whereabouts on the night the body turned up in the lobby. Although she does not recognize him, Bobby realizes that Olivia is his estranged daughter whom he has not seen since she was four years old.
Olivia and Steve had been a hot item at one time; that is until she discovered a pair of panties in the backseat of his car that she quietly sent off for DNA testing to confirm her suspicions. Now she regards him as pond scum; despite the fact that he’s exceptionally gifted at sucking her toes. Yeah…it’s gross. The long and the short of it is that Steve actually works for Raoul. The boys eventually reveal to Ferris that they have spared Pepper’s life moments before Raoul’s men capture Tony, Pepper, Ferris, Steve and Olivia, taking everyone aboard a steamer docked nearby where Raoul is awaiting a very large shipment of drugs. Bobby, however, has escaped and together with Joey gathers together a lot of the other retired mafia boys for one last hurrah. In the ensuing confrontation, Raoul and his men are apprehended, Olivia learns the truth – about both her partner and Bobby – and Raoul and his men are arrested by the police.   
The Crew is a sort of geriatric ‘goodfellas’ but without Scorsese’s knack for telling compelling stories about the mafia; a tale impeded by its lack of good sense to clarify for the audience whether it is trying to be a comedy with dramatic elements factored in or just a downtrodden melodrama with light comedic touches liberally applied to little or no effect. As a result, it quickly becomes an oddity; a mutt of a movie that never manages to escape from the purgatory of its artistically-bankrupt pound. The initial setup is depressing to say the least; four overgrown has-beens popping their medication and dreaming about their glory days long since gone by.  Their resolution to the rent control problem – planting a cadaver in the lobby – is so ridiculous and implausible that the narrative quickly degenerates into a grotesque lampoon, but without the necessary irony-inducing chortle to pull any of it off. Instead the story lumbers along; the movie in its own late stages of Alzheimer’s as Fanaro’s screenplay readily forgets the trajectory of its story, waffling between quaintly absurd vignettes that do little to establish character or evolve the plot. Richard Dreyfuss is all but wasted as the storyteller who bookends this lugubrious affair while Burt Reynolds can barely contain his disdain throughout – obviously appearing in this one only for the money. Lainie Kazan must need the paycheck pretty badly too; reduced to a blubbering caricature of the overprotective/bossy Jewish mother who finds…uh…happiness…by wedding Tony in the final reel.  Even at a scant 87 min. The Crew outstays its welcome. It is about as appealing as watching paint dry.
Mill Creek Home Entertainment is at it again; compressing lesser known catalogue titles onto a single Blu-ray and slapping out 1:78.1 transfers with little regard for the overall quality of their product. Thankfully, the results on this combo aren’t quite the disaster as some of their previous efforts (Stella immediately coming to mind). Mafia is worse for the wear – odd – because the image starts out very strong with vibrant colors and solid contrast levels. About mid-way through however, the print acquires a very heavy patina of grain that borders on digital noise, the image becoming gritty and slightly unstable with some bleeding around the edges.
Watch the scene where Anthony confronts Pepper and Joey about their affair. Here, flesh tones sudden veer into piggy-pink hues while background information almost breaks apart from some sort of unquantifiable digital noise. Contrast also gets blown out. On the whole, The Crew is a much more visually consistent viewing experience; good solid contrast throughout and rich colors that briefly look washed out near the end of the movie. Mill Creek won’t win any awards for this disc, but the transfers are passable for movies that are decidedly very below par for what great film-making is all about. The DTS 5.1 audio on both is competent. No complaints, but no outstanding moments to speak of either. Extras are limited to trailers.  Not recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
Mafia 2.5
The Crew 2
Mafia 2.5
The Crew 3.5

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