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.

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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Films that you probably haven’t seen and definitely shouldn’t #3: Capone (1975, dir. Steve Carver)

"Fails comprehensively as a biopic"

You spend all your time beating people?

–  I take Sundays off.

Capone is exactly the type of film that is bound to disappoint, a forgotten exploitation flick whose odd casting and shady synopsis immediately brings to your mind rapturous images of forbidden cinema as you’re going over the wacky DVD jacket. A bit like when you were a kid and some obnoxious friend managed to stay up late enough on a school night to catch Basic Instinct or Scarface on TV and fill you in the next day on the graphic details that become the building blocks of your fantasy, until a belated vision of the actual film, years later, destroys the deviant masterpiece you created in your mind.

Last week, out of boredom and nostalgia, I started browsing 50 Years of American Cinema by Bertrand Tavernier (Round Midnight anyone?) and Jean-Pierre Courdoson, an absolute classic of francophone film literature and also my personal movie bible (sadly never translated into English). At the entry for the year 1975, my eyes were caught by the following description: Roger Corman manages to gather an interesting ensemble cast for his take on Capone: Ben Gazzara in the title role, John Cassavetes as Frankie Yale and a fresh-faced Sylvester Stallone as Frank Nitti.

What the fuck? How had I not heard of this before? Capone? Corman? Cassavetes? Stallone?!

Immediately, I started daydreaming, imagining a nonchalant, pre-David Chase take on the dullness of suburban thugism, floating fragments of drunken improvisation in true Noo Yawk tawk interrupted at carefully calculated intervals by the mandatory pear-shaped seventies tits and litres of fake bright-red blood that Corman required to guarantee the financing of his projects. Put simply, I saw Husbands with guns starring Rocky in the supporting role of the vicious enforcer; I pictured Ben Gazzara swaggering in leftover sets from The Godfather Part II in a tasty slice of exploitation cinema; I even dared to think I’d “discovered” an unfairly shelved Bloody Mama.

A quick look on Amazon informed me that it’s been reissued on DVD recently, and a week later so began my viewing of Capone, directed by Steve Carver; Carver who, instead of joining the rank of the New Hollywood royalty like his fellow alumni from the Roger Corman school (Scorsese, F.F. Coppola, Dennis Hopper, James Cameron, etc) went on to direct such gems as An Eye For An Eye with Chuck Norris. Remember the advice of Cassavetes (yes, that hypocrite again) to Scorsese after a screening of Boxcar Bertha, his only contribution to the Roger Corman’s catalogue? “Congratulations! You’ve spent a year of your life making shit!”. Well it appears no one was there to tell Carver…

The misleading VHS sleeve

So, how bad is Capone? Well, quite terrible, but not bad enough at the same time. Let me explain.

“After 45 years, the true story will be told!” promises the tagline. Hmm, I don’t know which story they were talking about, but Al Capone’s it ain’t. The film is so historically inaccurate that it makes De Palma’s The Untouchables look like an academic thesis in American Studies. To make things worse, Carver is completely ignorant of the rise-and-fall narrative convention that is the backbone of any gangster epic worth its salt. Where does Alphonso come from? How did he rise so fast? What caused the scars? Nobody seems to give a shit. In the first scene, the mafia top honchos call a greying Gazzara, easily in his forties, “kid” – that’ll suffice as an origin story, and if you’re not happy here’s some boobs! Look out, a machine gun!

Screenwriting was never the forte of Corman’s movies anyway. He would put half-baked concepts in production like he would tie his shoes, always rushing in to surf on the success of the latest box office hit – in this instance, quite clearly, The Godfather saga. Taking the time to write dialogue and a three-act structure would be a waste of time and money. Therefore, Capone fails comprehensively as a biopic – that was to be expected.

As a gangster flick, it fares no better. Carver fails to understand what makes mob fans tick: the tasteless bling, the lavish lifestyle, the “I’m just breaking baaaaaalls” banter, the impromptu bursts of violence. At some point, Capone seems to consist entirely of a succession of badly choreographed drive-by shootings and corny slo-mo. Sigh.

Moving on to the oddball cast, Ben Gazzara plays the mythic mobster with the same OTT approach favoured by Robert De Niro a decade later – arched eyebrow, big cigar in the corner of the mouth, bouncing shoulders, flashy dressing gown and loud “heeeeey, caaaaam’ooooon”s to punctuate every single utterance. John Cassavetes, the pope of American indie, appears half-heartedly in only ONE scene at the start (misleading advertising has always been the preferred marketing strategy of B-movies) and Sylvester Stallone is bafflingly miscast as a cool-headed, Machiavellian gangster (I shit you not), the brains rather than the muscle, lecturing the audience in the epilogue about the evil of violence (“Capone was stoopid yaknow, just killing people yaknow.”) Talk about a disappointment, and I was lucky enough not to see the fantastically fallacious VHS sleeve prior to researching this (Sly doesn’t fire a gun once in the film). So, if you’re looking for some snarky laughs at the WTF? assemblage of future stars and struggling auteurs in their starving years, Capone is kind of a let-down too. No one is downright awful, though you can almost hear the rumbling of the actors’ ravenous stomachs.

As with most exploitation films, however, its redeeming qualities are to be found in its inherent, dated cheapness. The vintage red fades, the Californian hills in the background of downtown Chicago, the gratuitous nudity (again), the glaring insertion of stock shots from an even worse-looking movie (The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre), the more-than-decent retro car chases (that’s probably where most of the micro-budget went), the ill-advised attempt at a stylish, dark photography, Coppola-style, during the sit-down scenes and a couple of off-colour improvised lines to be caught here and there. Capone’s blatant flaws are actually quite charming, but that hardly makes it essential viewing, even in a cheeky, postmodern way.

GG

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Fight For Your Right Revisited

The short film/music video hybrid monster created by John Landis with Michael Jackson’s Thriller, is back. Many thought (and hoped) it had died with Guns N’ Roses’ cock rock monument November Rain, and despite a couple of unremarkable recoveries along the way, it really looked like it had until Lady Gaga (who seems to be making songs purely as a pretext to dress up as a lesbian vampire or whatever three-headed  transgender creature her pool of “creative partners come up with) revived it.

Since the mass media has decided Gaga is the best thing since sliced bread, the trend has caught up and now any self-involved artist with a big enough marketing budget has their own MASSIVE MUSIC VIDEO to announce their synergy with the zeitgeist, man. For example, after a series of convincing high-concept videos (Flashing Lights and We Were Once A Fairytale with Spike Jonze), Kanye West triple-jumped the shark with the 35 minute long Runawayaka Yeezy-in-Wonderland, which was ignored by most but strangely endearing in its own eg-autisticKanye-esque way. Even a respectable indie band like TV on The Radio released one to accompany their recent Nine Types of Light, although that was a more DIY affair than the previously mentioned big-budget extravaganzas.

Today’s exhibit is Fight For Your Right Revisited, by Beastie Boys’ Adam “MCA” Yauch, which premiered simultaneously on all MTV’s satellite channels last Thursday at midnight  – except the “real” MTV of course, which was probably showing a profitable re-re-re-run of the best hot tub moments in Jersey Shore.

Sam Malone is dying for a drink. (You'll only get this joke if you know Cheers. And even then it's not that funny. And that's if you recognize the guy with the white hair as Ted Danson)

The 30 minute film is a sequel to the iconic promo of (You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party) from their Licence To Ill heyday, picking up where the original left off: after the party.  Elijah Wood dons Ad-Rock’s Stuyvesant Physical Education T-shirt, Danny McBride takes MCA’s leather jacket and Seth Rogen wears Mike D’s gold chains.

So what happens next? Not a great deal actually: in the staircase, the guys get into a boringly would-be surrealistic argument with the owners of the flat (Susan Sarandon and Stanley Tucci), and then smash the window of the local store to steal some beer cans to be sprayed on random members of the public played by countless famous people in need of cool points. They rap a little, pull faces, create havoc and spray some more beer, all of this in slow motion, TWICE.

They hang out with some metal chicks in a limo (Chloe Sevigny looks so much like some dude from Motley Crue, it’s scary) then come face to face with their old selves from the future (Will Ferrell, John C Reilly and Jack Black) who have kindly brought along a dance mat (tied to the roof of their DeLorean, no less) in order to have a breakdance face-off, which ends in a collective golden shower.

Sound hilarious to you? Didn’t think so. The whole thing is a rather pointless attempt from a sizeable bunch of Hollywoodian “slebs” to go for the big LOLZ (cameo rate: 15 per second); poking fun at hiphop culture and the 80s with everybody’s favourite white rappers. It’s a bit weird to have an homage to B-boys’ golden age that’s so vanilla, without a single black actor in sight… but I won’t get sucked into that. It’s the Beasties after all. That’s a minor grievance.

The main issue here is that Fight For Your Right Revisited, though competently put together, stinks of lame improvisation (check the awfully flat dialogue) and badly lacks rhythm. And it has absolutely no narrative spine. And it’s 30 MINUTES LONG goddammit. And, Jack Black’s in it. To any sane individual, this fact should ring like a strident shitness alert.

In a nutshell, if you enjoy spotting furtive appearances of middle-aged stars playing dress-up in safely self-deprecating parodies straight-out of Jimmy Kimmel shows (I’m Fucking Ben Affleck etc. YAWN) or Saturday Night Live, you’ll have a good time watching this (being a Beastie Boys die-hard geek helps too), although this stuff is usually about 5 minutes long, MAX. At least it looks like they had fun on the day, good for them, I’m not trying to be one of the “h8taz”.

Check back in 25 years they say in the credits. Hmmm…. no thanks.

GG

Little White Lies

"Où est le rédacteur?"

A triumph at the French box-office despite the proper lynching it received from home critics, Guillaume Canet’s follow-up to the also-incomprehensible hit Tell No One is the most depressingly Gallic dud I’ve seen in years. Indeed, some have said it’s the defining movie of the Sarkozy era – self-aggrandising, hyperactive, bling bling and shallow.

Just a disclaimer before I go any further: I am a Frog myself, and it’s this kind of cultural export that makes me happy to be an expat. At least it takes a year for the film to get here.

Little White Lies (Les Petits Mouchoirs en Français) portrays a group of long-time friends in their late thirties taking their traditional summer holiday in Cap Ferret (an über-posh peninsula near Bordeaux) despite having one of their own lying on a hospital bed after a horrific road accident. Soon, everyone’s dirty secrets and half-truths resurface as guilt creeps in, triggering a series of hysteric fits and embarrassing revelations. It’s a classic premise for a comedy-drama, seen before in Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill: the death of a common friend as catharsis for collective existential crisis. It’s the type of canvas that requires a bit of subtlety  from the filmmaker not to turn into a melodramatic cringefest and restraint from the actors not to become an excuse to ham the shit out of the patronising dialogue.

Instead, Canet decided to go for “SIN-CE-RI-TY” (his mantra during promo interviews), refusing to intellectualise his “most personal film to date” (translation: “I’ve been staring at my belly button for the last three years”). He shot on his favourite vacation spot and got his wife (Marion Cotillard, yes) and friends to play the main parts. Oh dear. He also decided not to bother editing: the film clocks in above the two and a half hour mark, while managing the extraordinary feat of feeling static while being all over the place in terms of location, narrative developments and story-arcs. Put simply, it’s a mess. Did I also mention that every single character is either a self-absorbed bobo twat – floppy hair, Lacoste polos and flip flops – with insufferable levels of Frenchness (no one kisses their friends that often) or a loud, hysterical woman?

"Descendez de mon bateau, branleur!"

The film opens with a hilariously arrogant super-long take, Gaspar Noé-style, following  Ludo (douchebag no. 1, played by Jean Dujardin, supposedly our modern day Jean-Paul Belmondo) exiting a red-lit nightclub  – symbolism!!! – completely wasted, proceeding nevertheless to go home on his scooter, riding carelessly through Paris in the wee hours – feeling of impending doom!!! – before being pulverised on the pavement by the fastest truck that ever crossed the capital.  At this point, Guillaume Cannet feels like a garlic-flavoured PT Anderson.  Truly, he is just another terribly conservative cineast, multiplying the stabs at being postmodern and in touch with the “youth” (using the word “double penetration” in casual conversation for instance) that make him sound like another awkward dad trying to be cool.

The cast boasts some of France’s biggest names, each operating in their usual register: Cotillard, of course, as the fucked-up girl who’s always cool to be around because she’s got some pot but cries an awful lot (she really got this to an art now, with tears dripping from her nostrils and all); the veteran Francois Cluzet, turning his regular shift as the over stressed middle-aged bourgeois and Benoit Magimel as a sexually confused physiotherapist, doing his repressed-pretty-boy thing all over again. There are other familiar faces rehashing the usual stereotypes – the primitive Latin lover; the tight-ass Parisian wife; the rustic, broad shouldered mussel cultivator (what?) – but I’ll stop here before I get too incensed.

More than the musical postcards of seaside bliss (the market, the beach, the boat trip) that will make you sick of guitar ballads for the rest of the year, or the fact that the funny bits are depressing and the sad bits funny, what made me really angry is the list of pseudo-profound life lessons Canet is ramming down our throats: friendship is sacred / being gay is okay / you can find yourself away from the city where people have REAL VALUES / tend to the ill, don’t go on holiday when your mate is dying / cheating on your girlfriend is mean / etc… Deep, important stuff. Thanks, dear namesake, for your infinite wisdom, these were points that really needed to be made.

Spending holidays between friends can easily turn out to be a bad idea :”hell is other people”, wrote Jean-Paul Sartre famously. Looking at this bunch though, I can’t help but feel they deserve each other – tagging along is just masochistic perversity.

GG