Author Archives: Guillaume Gendron

About Guillaume Gendron

Paris-based freelance writer and journalism student at IFP (Institut Francais de Presse). Ex-Londoner (five years!), King's College London alumnus.

Characters that I love #9 and #10 – Jim Brown as Montezuma Monroe and Lawrence Taylor as Shark – Any Given Sunday (Oliver Stone, 1999)

Lawrence Taylor as Shark

I’ve always had a lot of time for Oliver Stone’s mid-late nineties output, especially the batshit crazy, MTV-gone-wrong trilogy of Natural Born Killers, U-Turn and Any Given Sunday. The latter was on TV recently and I was once again hypnotised by its kinetic flow of testosterone, epileptic jump-cuts and highly random soundtrack selection. I am well aware of Any Given Sunday’s multiple limitations: an undeniable misogyny (well, it’s an Oliver Stone film after all, a guy so obsessed with representations of dick-waving virility that he makes Hemingway’s oeuvre self-consciously metrosexual by comparison), a potentially objectionable revisionist nostalgia (“the game was pure back in the days, ra ra ra”) and the usual, unchallenged brothers-in-arms apology; but the staggering, relentless energy of the piece leaves you reeling and breathless at the end, as if you’d just played the last quarter, counting your bruises under the cold shower. I can’t think of many films that are viscerally this much fun, and for once, I have to agree with Mark Kermode who put it perfectly at the time in Sight & Sound: “Any Given Sunday may fall on its face a few times during the game, but wouldn’t you rather watch a team going recklessly for the touchdown than playing safely for time?” Besides, this was probably Al Pacino’s last hurrah, whose inches speech (that I always found more demoralising than inspiring honestly, especially compared to this) has now firmly secured cult-status.

Undeniably, despite a couple of narrative shortcuts hurting the reality effect – yes, Willie Beamen (Jamie Foxx) landing the cover of Sports Illustrated and suddenly having his face plastered on every bus in Miami after only three games is a bit much – Any Given Sunday is at its most convincing when portraying the players in all their flaws and glories behind the scenes, from fame-craving up-and-comers to coke-snorting washed-up stars and dressing room psychos. I personally always loved the white-trash, Metallica-loving “Madman” Kelly who throws his baby alligator pet in the showers to settle a rap versus heavy metal battle.

Out of the plethoric and star-studded cast of secondary characters  – all excellent, from the medic duo of innocent intern Matthew Modine and evil materialist silverfox James Woods to LL Cool J as a delusional aging player (admittedly not much of a stretch if you draw the obvious parallel with his music career) – two figures always stood out of the pack of mighty beefcakes for me: Montezuma Monroe and Lawrence “Shark” Lavay: the intense defensive coach and the ailing franchise star. Both are played by two absolute legends of America’s favourite sport, respectively Jim Brown (one of the best men to ever play the game) and Lawrence  “L.T.” Taylor, the leader of the New York Giant’s Big Blue Wrecking Crew in the late eighties, an emblematic hard-hitting linebacker equally notorious for his ruthless tackles as for his off-field antics (rape allegations, drugs, prostitutes – the lot).

Jim Brown as Montezuma Monroe

But let’s go back to Jim Brown first – mostly known on the big screen as one of the Dirty Dozen under Lee Marvin’s orders but also, in my favourite role of his, for playing the badass retired boxer turned Vegas pharaoh in Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks, who literally kicks the green shit out of hundreds of bulbous headed invaders to reunite with Pam Grier and his kids. In Any Given Sunday, he is Montezuma Monroe (what a name), sporting the kind of manly moustache upon which blaxploitation franchises were once built. Brown steals every scene he’s in with his geriatric ghetto pep-talks and proto Sam Jackson swagger, walking away with the film’s best line, the classic “I don’t get strokes motherfucker, I give ’em!”  Purists might object to the use of the best running back in history as a defence guru (a bit like having a “soccer” flick with Pelé playing the goalkeepers’ trainer) but Jim Brown brings sincerity and credibility to the role, as well as a note of much-needed authenticity and legitimacy to the director who did not manage to get the NFL authorisation to use real franchise names and had to rebaptise the Superbowl the Pantheon Cup. Brown’s world-weary, “too old for this shit” partnership with Al Pacino works wonders and you almost believe him when Monroe ponders with tremolo in his voice giving up pro football for going back to coaching high-school teams, where the game is “pure” (though anyone who ever watched the sublime TV series Friday Night Lights obviously knows better than that).

Taylor as Terminator

On the other hand, Shark, closely based on Lawrence Taylor’s real-life persona but also very reminiscent of Shaquille O’ Neal in its gigantic exuberance, is probably a more arresting character in the sense that he stands as the perfect epitome of the modern sport superstar. Also, before I get into further sociologic convolutions, he’s just pretty awesome: colourful, engaging and always funny (check his hilarious dance moves at the charity ball or this sleazy deleted scene from the same portion of the film) – the kind of guy that will circular-saw your Chevrolet in two in order to school you on the indispensable reliance of the offense on the defence, and vice-versa. Lawrence Taylor, with his imposing frame, Jaws-like smile and undeniable charm seems to be having a ball the whole film – after all, didn’t he always dream of himself as a movie star? (see The Terminator vintage ad, left)

Shark is the charismatic captain of the Miami Sharks’s defence and the soul of the franchise, loved by fans and staff alike. He’s also a gold-toothed egocentric, a veteran obsessed by his bonuses, deciding to squeeze as much money as he can from the twilight years of his career. He’s a gladiator in Nike shoes fearlessly descending into the arena with a badly healed broken neck, his personal sword of Damocles, giving it 100% on any given Sunday but also, and probably consequently, a keen consumer of enhancement and recreational drugs. Shark is a “superfly brother in the white men’s world” (Willie Beamen’s words) who “can’t take a piss in the morning without a pill” (his doctor’s words), a party organizer whose motto is “no semen, no blood on the sheets”. Put simply, he’s both a living contradiction and the identikit of the 21st century pro athlete, an ubermensh with a broken body, disciplined on the field and dissolute as soon as he leaves it.

Shark is not a schizophrenic character though – his love of football is as genuine as his love of money, a fact made clear in the scene when the medical team tries to persuade him to retire early to avoid a fatal injury. Football IS money, two things so intrinsically imbricated that for the pro athlete the concepts are synonymous, there is no difference between the two.  This doesn’t render his plea for team spirit to Willie Beamen before the play-offs less genuine than his bonus bargaining. After the tremendous block that secures the semi-finals but confines him to a stretcher, his first words are, resuming consciousness, “did I block him?” quickly followed by Coach Monroe’s answer: “yes baby, you made your bonus!”. To the paramedics, Shark concludes: “Don’t drop me, I’m worth a million dollars”. Winning and making money is just the same damn thing in modern sport, and just like in Wall Street, “greed is good”. One athlete’s individual value is now measured in dollars rather than numbers of broken records, in the same way that Jay-Z evaluates his musical career by the number of copies he moved rather than his actual artistic quality. Shark is both a scion of Monroe’s legacy and its antithesis – they both care enormously about the game but associate different values to it.

Sport fans love to oppose loyalty and materialism, devotion to the game and cupidity. Morality has always been a dubious concept in sports, and definitely a bygone ideal since the game became one of the most lucrative job a man can ever do. Oliver Stone’s achievement in Any Given Sunday is to present this false paradox as something understandable, which says a lot about our love/hate relationship to stadium gods. No matter how unlikeable they can be, as long as they have talent and perform during game time we can never resist these spoiled overgrown children, just like the self-righteous doc played by Matthew Modine who ends up surrendering to Shark’s charm and administrates him doping products. In other words, Oliver Stone tackles once again the seductive side of capitalism and Shark is just another – though bulkier – Gordon Gekko.

Guillaume Gendron runs the culture and music blog Le Double G and can be followed on Twitter @ggendron20.

The Tree Of Life

Sean Penn

“We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigour, vast and titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder-cloud, and the rain.” 

– Henry David Thoreau, Walden

When was the last time you saw a film so overwhelming that you were left in a state of trance when the credits rolled? How often do you get to see a bona fide masterpiece on its release? And when was the last time film-going felt so much like an experience, a live event rather than a passive way to kill time? These were the questions, (amongst other existential interrogations including “what am I doing on this earth?”, “is that really what happens in the afterlife?” and “what does it take to cheer Sean Penn up?”) that I was left to ponder as I exited the French cinema in which I was lucky enough to catch the latest Palme d’Or winner.

So I’m one of the “Malick nuts” I suppose, as a handful of sneering critics dubbed us after they shamefully booed the film at the end of its inaugural screening in Cannes. Naysayers have snidely branded The Tree of Life variously as a preachy, ridiculously self-indulgent eccentricity; a megachurch feel-good clip; an overlong life-insurance ad with an IMAX science documentary squeezed in between two acts of a conservative family drama filmed in saccharine Malick-O-Rama and woodenly interpreted by Brad Pitt’s clenched jaw. Ah, the cynics. If this is the case, I guess it’s fair to describe 2001: Space Odyssey as a tedious pagan absurdity retelling the space travels of a silly black brick, featuring grown-men in cheap monkey suits.

Yes, I’m throwing 2001 in there already: The Tree of Life undoubtedly belongs to that exclusive category of over-ambitious, megalomaniac filmic UFOs, the one-in-a-decade (or maybe less) celluloid miracle. In recent memory, only Enter The Void shares the same dreams of grandeur, the same hunger to explore the limits of the medium and blow apart the conventions of the form, but next to Malick’s meditation, Gaspar Noé’s hallucinated trip, though not devoid of qualities, looks minuscule and puerile.

A dinosaur

The Tree of Life opens with one of the most disorienting half-hours of film you’re likely to see – an abstract maelstrom of recollections and allegories going back and forth in the later stages of a Texan family’s history that constitutes the loose narrative thread of the feature. We learn that the mother had to “give away her son to God” on his eighteenth birthday. What took the beloved scion (war? illness? an unsuccessful trial at Arsenal?) we’ll never know. This divine injustice triggers a lifelong existential crisis in his less-exemplary brother, played as an adult by a severe Sean Penn seemingly carrying the whole of human misery on his weary shoulders as he roams through gigantic steel buildings and corporate rooms – these notorious “non-spaces” that the modern man inhabits in stark contrast with the luxuriant countryside of his childhood. If this doesn’t sound confusing, it’s because everything makes sense by the end of the film.  At that moment, however, it feels like Malick is plunging your head under water and keeping it submerged, like a Baptist preacher half-drowning his new recruit in the strong current of a river. Aqueous metaphors abound through the film from waterfalls to garden hoses, water dually encapsulating the now-famous concepts Malick elucidates: the way of nature – forceful, overpowering, masculine, and the way of grace – soothing, protective, feminine, also incarnated by the antagonistic figures of the father and the mother – “always wrestling inside me” whispers Jack, the conflicted son, at one point.

So where is God in all this? Everywhere, son, everywhere. Malick’s take on religion is unquestionably pantheist, filming the green suburbia like the Garden of Eden. The Tree of Life may actually be the most important transcendentalist work since Thoreau’s Walden (an author with whom he shares the recluse ways and the obsession for self-reliance and absolute control), fitting perfectly in that peculiarly American school of thought that combines unapologetic self-involvement and a direct, borderline-pagan approach to the Creator through nature. And what’s more quintessentially American than a Midwestern middle-class family in the 50s? While the O’Briens may be based on Malick’s own roots, they are first and foremost a myth, in Roland Barthes’ sense of the term: the Adam and Eve of the director’s transcendentalist utopia.

This is why I struggle with the recurrent accusation that The Tree of Life is a work of fanatical preaching, as Malick’s transcendentalist inclinations can potentially accommodate most agnostics in the sense that he doesn’t challenge our scientist vision of the world by relying heavily on the Big Bang theory and Darwinism to depict the origins of the universe in the much talked-about cosmogonic segment. There’s no creationist fundamentalism or even a glimpse of a white-bearded dude as The Man Upstairs. Malick simply celebrates the miracle of life, its randomness, its convoluted trajectory from the infinitely big (the sun, Jupiter’s rings) to the infinitely small (the first ever cells duplicating); an exercise in micro/macro filmmaking. He’s a philosopher, not a pastor, and I couldn’t help but think that bizarrely, his representation of afterlife – which may also be Sean Penn’s inner world, it’s not clear – has actually a lot in common with the infinite, post-apocalyptic beach where the rebel clone ends up in the last chapter of Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island (by any standard, not a very Christian book), which also serves as an allegory for the impossibility of happiness that dooms the human race.

However, if there any flaws to find in The Tree Of Life, they would be in these two segments: the creation of the universe bit (an old Sisyphean project originally called Q and previously envisaged as a companion piece) and Sean Penn’s character existential walkabout. These two gloriously eccentric sidetracks do not ruin the whole, far from it (I must admit my inner 10 year old got quite excited when the CGI velociteraptors appeared), but, in fine, they’re not essential – a bit like the curiously incidental third brother in the O’Brien family. The film could stand alone consisting solely of its angular central stone: the family drama, undoubtedly its most magnificent and memorable part.

Brad Pitt

What’s so brilliant about this visceral portrait of a relatively common father and son Oedipal relationship is how Malick sublimes this commonness into a vivid reconstruction of the universal pain of growing-up that unites all little boys (the religious types will probably read it a metaphor of our own bond to God, that unkind disciplinarian Father). Almost every shot – all breathtaking, the camera having an eerie weightlessness, always mobile, always fluid, organic even, an invisible force of nature that carries you away like the torrents of water dear to the filmmaker – contains a Proustian moment that will reignite a long-forgotten sensation. This elliptically paced accumulation of unearthed souvenirs, perfectly captured by Emmanuel Lubezki’s sharp photography, Jack Fisk’s superlative set design and Alexandre Deplat’s haunting score had a truly dizzying effect on me, and I don’t think I was the only one. It’s even weirder when you realize that a twenty-something man such as myself ends up agreeing with old Roger Ebert about the film’s uncanny ability to connect immediately to your own personal experience. This identification is facilitated by the young Hunter McCracken, equally bringing incandescent rage and disarming fragility to a performance described by Bret Easton Ellis as the best by a male child since Henry Thomas in E.T.

This avalanche of literary name-dropping is not uniquely triggered by a self-conscious need to impress my potential reader, but mostly because The Tree of Life, despite its formal mastery, is the work of a director almost obnoxiously oblivious to what’s been done before in his chosen field, uninformed by its recent history and only referring to his previous oeuvre. The Tree of Life is truly an humbling lifetime achievement.

One the most popular formula used to patronize The Tree Of Life in the media has been to describe it as “sublimely ridiculous”, a tag reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe’s dismissal of transcendentalists as tree-hugging idealists “lapsing into mysticism for mysticism’s sake”, which earned them the not-so-kind nickname of frogpondians. There is indeed a pivotal scene in the film involving a frog out of its pond that could serve as fitting concluding analogy. Captured by a group of kids indulging their early sadistic impulses, the reptile is attached to a miniature rocket, which is set ablaze. That little creature, snatched from its idyllic pond to embark on a cosmic journey, may well be the mysterious Terrence Malick.

Guillaume Gendron runs the culture and music blog Le Double G and can be followed on Twitter @ggendron20.

Virile croissant eating: A how-to guide by Jean-Paul Belmondo

Check out this great clip of French acting legend Belmondo at the pinnacle of his popularity, hamming it up in the stereotypical role of ‘ballsy cop with a Colgate smile’ that he favoured in the second part of his career – imagine a jovial Dirty Harry or a wisecracking Charles Bronson. It’s a turn light years away from his early career as a Nouvelle Vague luminary.

In this scene from The Professional (1981), Bebel (as he’s affectionately nicknamed in France), with leather jacket wide open and pastry in hand, enters a little Parisian cafe well-set on teaching a hard lesson to a slimy wife-beater. I can understand that the lack of subtitles may be a downer for non-francophones, but you needn’t worry; the swaggering Jean-Paul is able to communicate the international language of macho pastry-dunking with ease – a Gallic equivalent to Lee Van Cleef’s antisocial cigarillo lighting in For A Few Dollars More, if you will. Also, relish in the awesome slapping sound effects.

The last line, superbly, is: “The croissant? Put it on my friend’s tab”.

The PPH Alternative Guide to Robert De Niro #2

On the set of "Raging Bull"

Longer, deeper, wiser – just like The Godfather Part II.

De Niro’s women

A few months ago, Neil LaBute wrote a clever little piece in Esquire about De Niro’s conflicted relationship to women in films. Taking Bob’s multiple incarnations as a whole, he argued that one of the main traits of the De Niro-ean character is a certain awkwardness towards women, an impossibility to love or be loved. From Travis Bickle to Noodles in Once Upon A Time In America, De Niro’s characters have been the creepy type; most likely to take a date to a porn cinema and rape her in the car on the way home. I can’t think of any other Hollywood legend that had to play so many scenes of sexual assaults or brutality towards women: from Novecento to Cape Fear, the examples abound. There’s even a book entitled “Ten Bad Dates with De Niro”. Suddenly, the Bananarama song makes sense. Like Al Pacino, De Niro was neither handsome nor ugly, and his taste for hardcore physical transformations made it impossible for him to incarnate the classic American hunk, which was probably a good thing for Robert Redford’s career. From Jake La Motta the wife beater to the premature ejaculator of Mad Dog and Glory, Bobby has always struggled with the other sex on the big screen. Moreover, few actresses have managed to take the measure of De Niro’s excellence and reach his level, a reasonable explanation as to why most of the female leads crossing his path have been reduced to either victims or inconsequential love interest.

Let’s have a look at five iconic actresses who shared the screen with Bobby D. to complete the argument.

Diahnne Abbott (Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy)

No, I don’t mean the Labour MP, thank god. Diahnne Abbott was an extra in Taxi Driver (she’s the usher of the porn threatre) who incidently became De Niro’s first wife. She appears alongside her husband in New York, New York and The King Of Comedy for a couple of seconds each time and the reason I’m including her has obviously nothing to do with her quasi-nonexistent acting “career”. It has always been well-known, and much commented upon, that De Niro almost exclusively went out with black women in his private life, Diahnne Abbott being his first and longest serving spouse. Apart from the anecdote, I find this quite interesting as one other reccuring attribute of the De Niro-ean character is to embody (and sometimes caricature) the reactionary Italo-American male – the urban, racist, violent neighborhood type, the kind of bigot dissected by Spike Lee’s early joints. It also echoes the plot of the first movie directed by Robert De Niro himself: A Bronx Tale – an experience he’d reproduce almost 15 years later with the competent but bland spy saga The Good Shepherd. In this bildungsroman focusing on a teenager growing-up in Little Italy during the sixties, De Niro plays the honest dad, a decent bus driver trying to stir away his scion from mobsters and… black girls. De Niro’s working class hero doesn’t believe in interracial relationships, and it would be wrong to assume this is simply an autobiographical footnote (De Niro Sr., as we saw in Part 1 of this guide, was a bohemian bisexual painter who had barely any influence on his son’s upbringing). I still struggle to understand what De Niro was trying to achieve with this subplot. The entire film is baffling anyway and was probably meant to be a nostalgic elegy of the hood but ends up an unflattering, stereotypical take on Italianness. It’s still fascinating to observe that his most iconic roles, up to the character he chose for himself in his first directorial feature, are the perfect opposite of the liberal guy he seems to be in real life, the father of mixed-race kids and fervent Democrat supporter (he was particularly vocal during Obama’s campaign). Why such a dichotomy between his mythical self and his private persona, we’ll probably never know.

Meryl Streep ( Linda in The Deer Hunter)

Perhaps the greatest actress he shared the screen with. Their extremely ambiguous relationship in Michael Cimino’s epic is portrayed through subtle gestures from both actors – a sublime work of minimalist naturalism. It’s up to the viewer to catch the short, clumsy glances Michael (De Niro) exchanges with the bridesmaid during the wedding, his shyness and her blushing cheeks, culminating with the incredibly awkward “sex scene” (is it really sex?) in the motel, when a traumatized Michael takes the place of his best friend Nick (Christopher Walken) in Meryl Streep’s bed. Superb interpretation on both parts of two individuals crushed by the tragedies of their time – the war, the immigrant culture, the declining industry, etc. However, if you want my personal take on this, the true love story in The Deer Hunter is clearly between Mike and Nicki, as there’s a not-so-hidden homoerotic tension pervading the whole film.  Is Mike looking at Linda (Meryl Streep) or Nicky during the ball? How deep is Michael’s declaration, “I love you Nick” before the fatal Russian roulette game? Why is Michael single when he’s clearly the leader of the pack, the alpha male? Perhaps the brusque “faggot” taunts of Stan (John Cazale) have some grounding in reality.

There’s a happy-end to Bob and Meryl’s partnership though: in 1984 they were reunited for Falling In Love, a Christmassy romcom that nobody seems to have seen (I definitely haven’t) and that I won’t analyse since it may well destroy my whole thesis on Bobby and the second sex…

Cathy Moriarty (Vicky La Motta in Raging Bull)

Simply an iconic performance by Cathy Moriarty, which she unfortunately never managed to repeat. Her smooth legs paddling in the swimming pool, her ruby lips kissing Jake’s post-fight bruises, her defiant pout in the club as she’s surrounded by small-time mobsters – she’s the absolute ghetto Lolita, worshipped as much as brutalised, a staggering beauty perfectly captured by Michael Chapman’s sensual black and white photography. You almost understand her husband’s pathological jealousy. And she’s obviously the object of one of Bob’s greatest lines.

Sharon Stone (Ginger in Casino)

Undoubtedly Sharon Stone’s greatest achievement, and in my humble opinion the actress that gave De Niro his best workout. She’s close to stealing every scene she’s in– no mean feat when you’re surrounded by such scenery-chewers as Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and James Woods. There’s something truly heartbreaking in this visceral story of unrequited love, something reminiscent of The Great Gatsby, but in the desert. You cannot help but feel for Ace Rothstein when he’s sitting in his car discussing his wife’s latest betrayal with Nicky Santoro (Pesci), repeating like a mantra between his clinched jaws “she drives me fucking crazy… she drives me fucking crazy!”. From the love at first sight moment filmed like a western gunfight foreshadowing what their life together will be (she’ll blow the money in the air, he’ll pay for the privilege of her company) to the paroxystic marital fights, it’s all acting greatness. And this time, you can’t fault Bob’s character – the poor sod just fell in love with the cruelest hooker ever. “Greedy bitch!”

Amy Brenneman (Eady in Heat)

Remember this folks, Bob De Niro doesn’t chat women up. That’s their job.

And of course, the 30 seconds rule… once again, the impossibility to love or be loved.

5 shades of evil

After this verbose passage of undergrad diarrhea, I thought I could nonchalantly throw your way a hastily made diagram of Bobby’s degrees of evilness, from devil to deviant. He did play his fair share of strangling-you-with-the-phone-cord gangsters and other jolly psychopaths, but here are the ones you definitely don’t want to fuck with:

5 great lines that are neither “you talking to me” nor “you fucked my wife”

“A mook? What’s a mook?[…] You can’t call me a mook.” – Mean Streets (1973)

“Stanley, see this? This is this. This ain’t something else. This is this. From now on, you’re on your own.” – The Deer Hunter (1978)

“A man becomes preeminent, he’s expected to have enthusiasms. Enthusiasms, enthusiasms… What are mine? What draws my admiration? What is that which gives me joy? Baseball!” – The Untouchables (1987)

Mike, I don’t get laid. I make love.” – Mad Dog and Glory (1993)

“What have you been doin’ all these years? – I’ve been going to bed early.” – Once Upon A Time In America (1984)

Alarming Movie Haircut: Jacknife

The unspeakable horror of the mullet and trucker hat combo.

"Razor Ramon called. He wants his hair back."

Bobby D’s films that you probably haven’t seen and definitely shouldn’t

Coming up with a list of De Niro’s worst films is pretty damn straightforward: simply copy his IMDb list of credits from 1995 onwards (still make an exception for Jackie Brown as we mentioned earlier) and paste it into your blog. Almost every single film is downright horrendous (yes, even the self-indulgent method acting seminar that is Copland, who’s unique raison d’être is to prove Stallone could get fat – honestly, who gives a fuck?). The man should be ashamed of himself. If he hadn’t done anything prior to this watershed year (a landmark for the worse if you will), I’d even be tempted to state that someone like let’s say Matthew McConaughey (always a pain in the ass to spell his name) had a more fulfilling, intellectually challenging career. Seriously, take a random pick and you may end up watching such embarrassing flops as Showtime with Eddie Murphy, Analyse This or That (when I recall that because of the similarity in pitches HBO almost cancelled the first season of The Sopranos, I shake in dread), or even the atrocious Hide and Seek, loosely based on shreds of Stephen King’s primary school drafts. And don’t get me started on the flipping Fockers trilogy. No, no, no it would be too easy (I’m still keeping some bullets for Righteous Kill though, see below), as Bob has put a staggering amount of energy in undoing the impressive unity of his oeuvre, selling out to the last drop his artistic integrity. A cynical spirit would almost wish that for legend’s sake, he’d had a meteoric lifespan a la John Cazale (who still boasts the best film resume ever). Conclusion: aging sucks. The challenge here was to find bad and obscure films pre-1995, plus Righteous Kill, which simply couldn’t be ignored.

We’re No Angels (1989)

A disconcerting first attempt at comedy by Neil Jordan, We’re No Angels, based on a stage play that’s as cheesy as it’s dumbly religious, is merely a pretext for a grimace contest between Bobby and an effete Sean Penn, playing two fugitives disguised as priests. Even the orangutan in Every Which Way But Loose displays a more considered acting technique.

Awakenings (1990)

Certainly looking for another Oscar to improve on the decoration of his living room, De Niro pulls the oldest trick in the book by choosing to play an handicapped person with a huge heart, in an inspiring real-life story of course. Thanks to the bravery he displays in front of his illness (some kind of catatonic state mixed with frenetic bursts of madness), the good patient teaches a series of heartwarming life lessons to his good doctor (Robin Williams). Bob got indeed nominated by the Academy, but with Daniel Day-Lewis and Dustin Hoffman having successfully used the same tactic the two preceding years (in My Left Foot and Rain Man respectively), he went home empty-ended. It was starting to become too obvious. In fairness, the film is not that awful in the “hospital” genre, but it’s more Grey’s Anatomy than ER

Stanley & Iris (1990)

Tacky, well-meaning melodramatic take on illiteracy and its social consequences, starring the hard-to-stomach romantic pairing of Bob and… Jane Fonda. Patronising, sloppy and more somniferous than a Tarkovsky marathon (without the feel-good factor of having your cultural broccoli), Stanley & Iris – check the nauseating use of “&” – reeks of straight-to-VHS release. As you can see, the turn of the decade was pretty tough for De Niro, thankfully Goodfellas came along to save the year.

Righteous Kill (2008)

De Niro / Pacino, Round Two (or three, if you count The Godfather II). And who’s there to referee this gigantic face-off? 50 Cent and his creatine-enhanced performing skills. Jesus-titty-fucking Christ. However, it would be extremely harsh to blame Mr. Cent for this shambles. Bob and Al’s joint performance in this rote thrill-less thriller is as dignified as two senile old men with piss stains on their trousers trying to grop Carla Gugino’s breasts through her turtleneck sweaters. De Niro is as grimacing as ever, constantly pulling a face between profound disgust and three-days constipation, while Pacino, left-alone to his madness, is in full-on “she’s got a grrrrrrreat ass” mode for the entire duration of the film. The plot rehashes for the umpteenth time the dowdy big-reveal twist of the schizophrenic psychopath, expecting us to care whether De Niro or Pacino is the lame ass vigilante perpetrating the “righteous kills”. I’ll save you a couple of hours: it’s Bob. There. I said it. Now let’s burn all the copies of this monstrosity and watch Heat again.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

And there we have it, ladies and gents, the career of Robert De Niro in a rather large, two-part nutshell. What did we miss? What did you agree with? Do you share our author’s disgust at the great man’s post-1995 output? Let us know!

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The PPH Alternative Guide to Robert De Niro #1

A blast from the past (photo by Xavier Lahache)

He never really left, but we kind of missed him.

Robert De Niro is back where he belongs, at the centre of the film world, presiding over the Cannes Film Festival from the height of his past greatness just as fresh digital prints of Taxi Driver are hitting our screens (there’s also a nationwide re-release of The King of Comedy in France coinciding with the festival).

Is there anything left to write about Bob, the emperor of thespians, the legend of the New Hollywood, the pope of Method? Like an antique Roman sculpture, he’s a reminder of a better, different time when cinephilia ruled supreme over the box-office, before summer blockbusters, franchises and “reboots”, a time when cinema-goers were treated as intelligent, thinking adults and not de-cerebrated teenage monkeys spending their pocket money on popcorn. A time when films were a cultural event, defining the era, a source of endless dinner conversation, rather than plain entertainment. De Niro’s career, or at least the miraculous first twenty years of it, is a time capsule containing everything we loved about American cinema, constituting the reptilian memory of any modern movie-brat.

For a time, our hearts balanced between him and Al Pacino in a disputed fight for the title of the Greatest, as tight a contest as Cassius Clay versus Muhammad Ali would have been, until everyone agreed that Bobby won that one by K.O in Heat. This was more than fifteen years ago and since then, as if exhausted by the cost of this pyrrhic victory (the gruelling physical transformations, the maddening mental preparations), not much has happened. We’ll make an exception for his bittersweet, misty-eyed performance in the sweetly nostalgic Jackie Brown (1997), his humble goodbye to Cinema with a capital C. Today, Mr. De Niro is a businessman, making the odd cameo or self-parody here and there, but staying mainly focussed in endlessly expanding his real-estate empire and opening new exotic-chic restaurants.

And don’t look for an heir to the throne either. It won’t happen again, and no, Leonardo Di Caprio is not a contender, despite Martin Scorsese’s desperately obstinate attempts at moulding a new, younger alter ego with a similarly italian sounding two-part surname. As Bobby himself admitted in a recent interview, this kind of masculinity, this virile intensity, is gone. Times have changed and the current cinematic landscape, shaped by risk-shy Hollywood suits believing that comic-book adaptations are solely able to fill cinema seats, won’t allow it.

So, with our hearts heavy with nostalgia, we’d like to commemorate the genius of Bob De Niro, a man we love(d), by humbly presenting the PPH Alternative Guide to Robert De Niro, from the forgettable to the sublime.

Five bits of vaguely intriguing trivia

  • Robert De Niro Sr., a painter and key figure of Greenwich Village’s bohemia, was rumoured to have been Jackson Pollock’s lover. Despite what many believe, Robert De Niro Jr.’s childhood was nothing like A Bronx Tale.
  • He auditioned for the role of Sonny in The Godfather, losing it to James Caan. There’s no question who really “won” in the end though, as Bob swiftly received a call from F.F Coppola when Brando refused to reappear in The Godfather II. Check the rushes: a bit of that Johnny Boy swagger don’t you think?
  • At the end of the seventies, Jean-Luc Godard wrote a script tentatively titled The Story, a biopic focusing on the prohibition gangster Bugsy Siegel, slated to star Robert De Niro and Diane Keaton. Never happened, but makes you wonder what if. On a similar note, Jeff Bridges was the original choice to play Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. What a different film that would have been…
  • A pony-tailed, disoriented, French-speaking Robert De Niro appears alongside Catherine Deneuve in “A Hundred and One Nights of Simon Cinema by Agnes Varda (another figure of the French New Wave), a disparate collection of sketches celebrating the 100 years of cinema in 1995. Dig the sweet surrealism.
  • According to girl group Bananarama’s Siobhan Fahey, the band’s chirpy 1984 hit single Robert de Niro’s Waiting was originally called Al Pacino’s Waiting, but that didn’t fit so well with the music. Also, the song is sung from the point of view of a rape victim… not so feelgood now eh!

Five films to revisit

You know your Travis Bickle from your Jake La Motta, you’ve seen The Deer Hunter and don’t even lie when you claim you’ve watched the entire Godfather saga.  But don’t consider yourself a Bob’s connoisseur until you checked these more-or-less forgotten gems:

1900 / Novecento (1976)

De Niro’s first and only real venture into European arthouse, 1900 is an insanely ambitious, 4-hour long deviant superproduction sketching a portrait of the century, as viewed from the Italian countryside. From communism to nazism, from serfdom to the industrial revolution, Bernardo Bertolucci’s masterpiece is a epic pageant full of blood, sperm, piss and cocaine, oozing hubris through every frame in which the sordid is sublimed and the wealth rendered putrid. In one of the most flamboyant pairings of the decade, the rich, insouciant landowner De Niro faces the bastard peasant Gérard Depardieu, in a game of dares on and off screen culminating with the infamous, frontal masturbation scene. Recently, in one of his now-common drunken public confessions, Depardieu explained that him and De Niro, like two declining porn stars on a set in Budapest, had trouble getting it up until the Frenchman kindly brought along his own magic concoction of chinese heat rub and water. Sordid and sublime indeed.

The Last Tycoon (1976)

Still basking in the violent glory of his tantalising turn in Taxi Driver, Bob decided to wrong-foot the entire world waiting for another traumatising, soul-baring incarnation and gave instead one his most delicate compositions. In Elia Kazan’s farewell to cinema, he plays a movie mogul during Hollywood golden age, a frail Fitzgeraldian hero obsessed by the only woman he can’t have, wandering through the grandiose sets of fake stucco with the dangling arms and dreamy eyes of a lost child, living vicariously through the tame romcom he produces. This melancholic cautionary tale of a man who understood cinema better than anyone, but didn’t know how to live contains a magistral face-off with Jack Nicholson bizarrely left unmentioned in most film history books. From the über-physicality of Travis Bickle to the fragile loneliness of Monroe Stahr, De Niro was already demonstrating he could do it all, but few people saw it at the time. Elia Kazan stained reputation (McCarthy, etc.) didn’t help either.

The King of Comedy (1982)

Misunderstood at the time of its release, The King of Comedy is probably the least celebrated work from the Scorsese-De Niro partnership. However, a breeze of revisionism is gently pushing the film towards the top of critics’ lists, and nowadays there’s nothing trendier in some circles than to announce that The King of Comedy is your favourite offering from the Italian American package. It’s only right, as the duo’s first foray into comedy is truly visionary, foreshadowing reality TV and more generally the Warholian syndrom of fame for fame’s sake that governs today’s pop culture, served with a deadpan, sombre humour a la Andy Kaufman. Essential.

Midnight Run (1988)

De Niro’s unsung contribution to the 80s institution that is the buddy movie. Teaming up with Charles Grodin (the suburban dad of the awful Beethoven films) for Martin Brest, arguably the “inventor” of the genre with Beverly Hills Cop, Midnight Run is a faultless product of its time: silly macguffin, swift execution, excellent supporting cast of farcical mugs (Dennis Farina, Yaphet Kotto, Joe Pantoliano) and terrific dialogue, benefiting from De Niro’s science of improvisation and Grodin’s timing. Midnight Run was also perhaps Bobby D.’s first truly commercial film, a new direction that would be confirmed in the next two decades, when he tended to abandon auteurs for an easy payday in the world of home entertainment. If they were all half as exhilarating as Midnight Run that wouldn’t be so bad, but it didn’t really turn out that way…

Backdraft (1991)

I admit it, this could be easily dismissed as a cynically provocative choice, as Ron Howard’s “pyrotechnic” take on Chicago’s firemen (haha, see what I did here?) is from the start burdened by some MAJOR flaws: a) William Baldwin b) William Baldwin c) William Baldwin and d) one of Kurt Russel’s most ridiculous lines (that’s my brother goddamit!). However, I developed a soft spot for this film whose charm relies purely on nostalgic factors.  A quintessential production of the early nineties, Backdraft is a post-Top Gun over stylised action film full of deeply homoerotic machismo, terrible cock-rock music, MTV-style colour filters and pre-CGI tour-de-forces (the fire is alive man!). Most of Bob’s screen-time was cut in the editing room, transforming his contribution into the kind of 4-star cameo, handmade performance of the tutelary figure that he’d specialise in for the rest of the decade. As the blasé, heavily scarred, smoking-on-the-crime-scene arson investigator, he’s never been so badass playing a good guy (he’s even nicknamed Shadow – seriously, how cool is that?)

Part II is coming up soon, and like The Godfather, it’ll surely surpass the first instalment, thanks to a couple of alarming movie haircuts, Bobby D’s. films that you probably haven’t seen and definitely shouldn’t and great lines that are neither “you talking to me?” nor “you fuck my wife?”.

GG

35mm: a graphic journey through the history of film

Check out this animated short by french graphic designers Felix Meyer and Pascal Monaco, which stands as a sort of a visual crossword for cinephiles. The artists crammed into two minutes their 35 favourites flicks, capturing the essence of each in sharp geometric shapes and minimalist sounds: a white triangle emerges as the iceberg from Titanic, two chromatic notes are the cue for Jaws, a bloody peace symbol encapsulates Full Metal Jacket, etc. It’s all very high concept and at times baffling, but definitely fun. I could identify about half of them after my first viewing, you probably can do better. Go!

Looks like someone has been watching The Wire…

Here is a sequence from Poliss, a new French crime drama about the child protection services, presented yesterday in competition at the Cannes Film Festival.

I’m pretty stoked about the film for a couple of reasons besides its realer-than-real trailer. Firstly, Maïwenn Le Besco (who usually goes by her first name only) is one the quirkiest film personalities in France. Formerly engaged to Luc Besson in her young and idle years (she’s in Leon: The Professional for a couple of seconds and plays the blue, bulbous-headed diva in The Fifth Element), she became a true polymath once he left her, writing and performing comedy stand-up, directing an auteurish film (the ferocious Le bal des actrices / The Actress’ Ball, a painfully honest autofiction on female thespians) and appearing in oddball B-movies, such as the homegrown lesbian slasher High Tension, by Alexandre “Pirahna 3D” Aja. Versatile, I’m telling you.

Maïwenn Le Besco

Secondly, the main part, Fred – a taciturn cop on whom a posh journalist (played by Maiwen) writes a profile piece – is performed by one of France’s most emblematic rappers, Joeystarr of NTM fame. Don’t laugh, France used to have good hip-hop, and he’s truly an icon, sort of the local Nas (speaking of which, they collaborated on a pretty awesome remix together). It’s a bit of an Ice-T move for him, as NTM (for Nique Ta Mere, “Fuck Your Mom”) were sued and fined in the 1990s for “inciting violence against the police”. But the man can really act; his turn in Maïwenn’s previous film Le bal des actrices earned him a nomination for the Best Newcomer Cesar. Moreover, he has a tremendous presence; an animalistic masculinity rivalled only by Tahar Rahim (A Prophet) in the country with 365 kind of cheeses.

I haven’t yet seen the film, but from what I can see on this teaser, Maïwenn, who’s neither trying to make Paris looks like New York nor delivering another Eurotrash action-thriller (yes Luc Besson, I’m looking at you again), may have got things right and the hype building around the film could well be worth it. We’ll see in a couple of months.

GG

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