Tag Archives: Robert de Niro

Silver Linings Playbook | review

Silver Linings Playbook, David O. Russell’s adaptation of Matthew Quick’s novel of the same name, is billed as an offbeat romantic-comedy – but its vision is much richer than that, giving us a humane glimpse into struggles with mental health.

The story centres around Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper), a man who spent eight months in a mental institution after catching his wife with a lover and nearly beating him to death. He’s bipolar, undiagnosed until the incident, and we meet him while he’s struggling to rebuild his life. He moves back in with his parents (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver) in a suburb of Philadelphia, fixated on reuniting with his wife Nikki (this is the ‘silver lining’ of the title); but that’s made difficult by her restraining order against him. Pat strikes up an unconventional friendship with Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), his friend’s sister-in-law, who is struggling with the untimely death of her husband.

Pat and Tiffany are both outcasts whose brains process their pain in antisocial ways; Pat’s manifests in intense aggression, while Tiffany’s comes out in angry promiscuity. They are unable to mask their suffering while under scrutiny, their past errors are still raw in everyone’s memories. We’re drawn into the narrative, curious about how these two might regain their dignity, earn back the trust of their families, and adjust to their lives after their personal traumas; the romance angle, in truth, is totally secondary to that.

The film is genuinely absorbing because it crafts a credible world for these characters to inhabit. The local details are just right, from the Eagles fandom (the Philly NFL team, not the band) to the neighbourhood diner. Pat’s parents’ house looks lived-in and unglamourous, and you get a real sense of the community Pat belongs to as he jogs through it. The film captures how Pat and Tiffany don’t struggle in isolation; their pain affects their families, friends and neighbours. This is supported by the unintrusive camerawork, stylised just enough to expressionistically reflect the mental states of Pat and Tiffany when required.

But don’t worry – watching Silver Linings Playbook doesn’t feel heavy going. It focuses on the humanity of the characters, not the issues they inevitably represent. It’s enjoyable because it has a keen sense of humour and moves at a fast pace, propelled by the candour of its central duo. While Pat doesn’t have a filter and Tiffany has a penchant for provoking people, luckily, both Cooper and Lawrence manage to keep their outbursts rooted in their characters’ pain, exuding pathos. Many may know Cooper best as the morally corrupt friend in The Hangover or the intense suitor of Rachel McAdams in The Wedding Crashers – he’s fortunate that his manic energy and fratboy appeal finally find a sympathetic home in the character of Pat. It probably doesn’t hurt that Cooper himself grew up in a suburb of Philly. And Lawrence certainly matches his intensity, acting with impressive maturity and gravitas well beyond her 22 years.

The human frailty of Pat and Tiffany is bolstered by Russell’s ensemble cast, who ensure that we put the meanings of ‘crazy’ and ‘normal’ into context. John Ortiz is endearingly amusing as Pat’s friend Ronnie who’s struggling under the pressures of family life. And Chris Tucker, who I last saw in Rush Hour, is surprisingly sweet and quirky as Pat’s friend Danny from the institution. De Niro – in his first role in ages that requires him to be more than a caricature – is a welcome scene-stealer as Pat’s dad who is obsessed with the Eagles and their ‘juju’.

The film doesn’t demonise mental illness or lionise those who endure it – it’s made clear that everyone, on medication or not, has issues and their own preferred form of therapy to deal with them, be it running, dancing, working out, or watching football. The most gratifying thing about Silver Linings Playbook is that it thoughtfully engages with the grey areas of life’s difficulties and trusts the audience to make its own judgements. It’s actually a very appropriate film to see this holiday season, because it ought to pique your empathy levels… provided you’re not a Scrooge.

Silver Linings Playbook is in cinemas now. Contributor Cathy Landicho can be followed on Twitter @ConfusedAmateur.

The erotic adventures of Steamboat Willie

If you’ve been anywhere near the internet this week, you’ll have seen this fantastic, Disneyfied re-imagining of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver by filmmaker Bryan Boyce. But posting it again can’t hurt, especially if you have contrived to miss it. Quite frankly, it’s the best thing Robert de Niro’s been in for years, and an excuse to link to our article from last year asking if de Niro has now been crap for longer than he was great, and if so, does it matter? You can read the article HERE.

Has Robert De Niro now been crap for longer than he was great… and does it matter?

Garry Marshall’s new film New Year’s Eve throws up a number of challenging questions. Among them; what is the biological nomenclature for that silky auburn thing atop Jon Bon Jovi’s bonce? Wouldn’t it be funny if Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges’ job was actually building ludicrous, architecturally unsound bridges instead of turning up in terrible films every couple of years? And – perhaps most painfully – does this syrupy boondoggle represent the once-great Robert De Niro’s lowest ebb?

Somewhat predictably, New Year’s Eve has gone down poorly with critics, who have described it variously as “[an] unfunny and heartless Hogmanay Horror” [1], “a depressing two-hour infomercial” [2] and, wonderfully, “soup made of rocks” [3]. But there’s a prevailing sense that it’s the famed, Oscar-winning method actor who – by dint of his presence in such awful rubbish – has really let the side down. De Niro snoozes [4] through the film as a dying patient who just wants to see in the new year in Times Square before he croaks. An outraged Peter Travers of Rolling Stone commented: “How desperate can he be to crush his career even more so by doing this?” while on Twitter, Total Film’s Emma Dibdin suggested that while De Niro has phoned in performances before, this time he was on speakerphone, and “not even near the handset, so very faint”. It’s a turn that’s prompted Cinemart’s Martyn Conterio to re-Christen him, cruelly yet brilliantly, “Robert Nadir-o”.

Sadly, none of this will come as a surprise to those who’ve followed the man’s career in the past few years, a panoply of mediocrity (and worse) so fundamentally uninspired that anyone with a mere entry-level interest in film culture could mistake him for a shabby, underpowered character actor who doesn’t really do “character”.

All of which brings us to the big question: has De Niro now been crap for longer than he was great?

To answer, we need to set up some parameters. Although he burst onto the scene in Brian de Palma’s appropriately titled Greetings in 1968, I’d argue that his first great role came in Martin Scorsese’s breakthrough drama Mean Streets (1973). Shark-eyed and flashing that trademark shit-eating grin, his Johnny Boy was a discomfiting streak of negative energy made flesh, blowing up mailboxes, chiding his friends, and clearly bound for tragedy the second you laid eyes on him. He blew a more low-key Harvey Keitel (the film’s ostensible lead) off the screen, and fast-forwarding three years to his turn as deeply troubled Vietnam Vet Travis Bickle in the landmark Taxi Driver, it was no surprise to see Keitel playing second fiddle to De Niro.

A period of creative fecundity followed Mean Streets, with a large chunk of his great work produced in collaboration with partner-in-crime Martin Scorsese. Though he won his first Oscar for Francis Ford Coppola in The Godfather Part II (1974) and struck an early blow for mumblecore as the downbeat Michael Vronksy in Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978), his career high arguably arrived in 1980 with the Oscar-winning portrayal of bully-boy boxer Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull. 1983 saw him (in this writer’s personal favourite De Niro performance) utterly disappear into the of damaged psyche and awful suits of would-be stand up comic Rupert Pupkin in Scorsese’s The King Of Comedy; a chillingly prescient clarion call to the borderline-psychopathic inanity of modern popular culture [5].

Despite his penchant for intensity, De Niro also displayed an impressive aptitude for comic roles. Any young filmmaker setting out to make the next great buddy movie should check out Martin Brest’s Midnight Run (1988), that genre’s ur-text. His chemistry with a slippery, motormouthed accountant (Charles Grodin) is comic dynamite. Laughs were thin on the ground in 1990’s Goodfellas which represents, for me, the last time De Niro really scaled the heights of greatness. It’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the role of the twitchy, brutal and increasingly paranoid mob boss Jimmy Conway.

Although De Niro was Oscar nominated for his role as the deranged Max Cady in 91‘s Cape Fear (Scorsese again, and De Niro’s last Oscar nom to date), it would appear that 1995 is a key year for us in establishing the tipping point in de Niro’s career. His turn as Casino’s Ace Rothstein displayed a more romantic, softer side that was singularly absent from Jimmy Conway. It was an intriguing, solid and occasionally powerful performance, but a great one? I’d say not quite – it’s technically strong, but it’s Conway-lite, just as Casino, despite it’s epic sweep and grand hauteur, exists in the shadow of Goodfellas. Michael Mann’s Heat also arrived in 1995, bringing De Niro and his great contemporary Al Pacino together on screen for the first time. Heat’s a great film, no doubt, but De Niro’s portrayal of career criminal Neil McCauley, while understated and effective, is never spoken of in the same hushed tones as Travis Bickle or Jake LaMotta.

Post ’95, De Niro was gamely against type – if inessential – in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown and mildly amusing in Analyze This, but by this point the laziness had taken root. James Mangold’s Copland was a veritable conference call of a movie with heavyweights (including De Niro, Keitel and to a lesser extent Ray Liotta) all dialling in to see how the hammy Sylvester Stallone would cope with a meaty role. The rest makes for painful reading. The Score? The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinklle? Meet The Fockers? Righteous Kill? Killer Elite (billed underneath Jason Statham)? And now New Year’s Eve? Enough – as they say – said.

So, by my calculations, this all means that Robert De Niro was great for 17 years, then pretty good – but flirting with mediocrity – for around five, then finally crap for the next 16. Even if De Niro hasn’t quite been crap for as long as he was great, it doesn’t appear it’ll take long for him to overtake himself, judging by his current form.

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De Niro co-founded the Tribeca Film Festival in 2002

The next question is one that I rarely hear asked. Does De Niro’s decline really matter?

Perhaps we should be shifting our perceptions of what De Niro stands for now. Despite his lack of impact in front of the screen, it’s not as though he’s been profligate with his time behind the scenes. In 2002, he co-founded the (increasingly popular) TriBeCa film festival as both a new cinema showcase and a project of local economic regeneration in response to the devastation of the New York districts in the 9/11 attacks. He’s also busied himself with opening a number of restaurants including Nobu and TriBeCa grill, and even the Greenwich Hotel, within which lies another restaurant. As well as the business projects, De Niro has turned his hand to the time-consuming process of directing with the follow-up to ’93 debut A Bronx Tale, The Good Shepherd (2006) an underrated – if stodgy – drama.

At his peak, acting was his first job, just like many of us have one main source of income. Thusly, it could justifiably be argued that rather than being a lazy actor, De Niro is in fact now a different proposition; a successful, multivalent businessman (with capital earned from his own creatively popular endeavours) who dabbles in a pastime now and again at his well-earned leisure. Why should we begrudge him that?

Another angle: Perhaps the effect of his onscreen mediocrity feels more pronounced because of a crisis of masculinity on our screens, and we miss his (and before him, Marlon Brando’s) brand of untrammelled, occasionally psychotic virility. De Niro’s decline, in this writer’s opinion, has coincided with a collective unconscious longing for on-screen *masculinity*, as the very definition of the term has grown increasingly, yet not unappealingly, amorphous [6]. All this in a climate in which the blockbuster market has been saturated by CGI. Where are the real stars in recent films like Transformers, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Hugo, Avatar, Captain America and Super 8?

Over the last couple of decades, where have the great leading men (in their physical and performative prime) really been? Denzel probably reached his peak with Malcolm X (1992), despite the Oscar win for Training Day. Day-Lewis is a MAN, no doubt, but his movies come along every five years, which is roughly the amount of time it takes him to digest all the scenery he’s chewed up from his last acting job. Brad Pitt, so impressive as a hard-but-sensitive bastard dad in The Tree of Life, is starting to show manly promise. The intriguing Christian Bale continues to champ at the bit. Perhaps the real heir to De Niro’s throne – finally – is the chameleonic, chiselled Michael Fassbender who, as evidenced by his stunning turn in Steve McQueen’s Shame, can make a spot of light rimming resemble a transcendentally traumatic experience. Really, It’s not De Niro’s fault he left such a void. [7]

Another thing that De Niro hasn’t done is renege on a promise, or, as the popular maxim goes, “sell out” – well, no more so than the legions of actors to pop up in commercials down the years, anyway. Unlike Brando, De Niro was never especially political in his pomp, and unlike – say – Iggy Pop, the “Godfather Of Punk” – now known to a younger generation as “that oddly muscular lady from all the car insurance ads” – he never came from a position of radical counterculturalism, and thus can’t be seen to be debasing his own legacy from an ideological point of view. Rather, De Niro’s capitulation to laziness represents him figuratively urinating upon audiences’ projection of him as a countercultural icon; a post-Watergate totem of muscular anti-heroism who explored the dark heart of the American dream in his string of untouchable performances.

De Niro piled on 60lbs to play the older Jake LaMotta in 1980

It’s also worth mentioning that while De Niro’s performances have become increasingly somnambulant, at least he hasn’t opted for the psychotic, self-parodic self-abasement favoured by Pacino, who’s gone miles in the opposite direction, often dementedly so. According to The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney, “With bizarre commitment, Pacino endures one indignity after another — as himself, as Richard III and as Don Quixote. Why? You start to wonder if they drugged him”. In the new Adam Sandler comedy Jack and Jill, Pacino inexplicably attacks his role as a potential suitor for Jill (that’s Adam Sandler in drag, by the way) like a RADA graduate auditioning for the part of Hamlet. Frankly, it’s all a bit embarrassing.

Clearly, we must address the question of age. Robert De Niro is now 68 years old. This part of the argument doesn’t really legislate for his dismal output in the late 90s and early 2000s, but certainly carries weight in the here and now. De Niro is famous for the intensity that he brought to his earlier roles, as well as a dedication to the method. But let’s face it, if he tried to put on 60 pounds now (as he did for Raging Bull), his heart would explode. And how many great leading roles have there been in recent time for actors of his age in Hollywood? Christopher Plummer shone recently in Beginners, and Jeff Bridges (seven years De Niro’s junior) has, with Crazy Heart and True Grit, experienced a late-career blossom of rare dimension. But that’s about it. Lots of performers win plaudits for acting up in age (Di Caprio in J Edgar, Pitt in …Benjamin Button, Crowe in A Beautiful Mind) but how often can you think of actors who have played down in age? Brad Pitt as a crinkly CGI baby Button doesn’t count, by the way. Therefore, De Niro’s opportunities to shine in major roles have been limited by his age. And as we’ve established, he’s a busy man – so why would he expend much energy by actively searching out such roles? We just have to cross our fingers and hope that the right part comes to him. 2012’s brilliantly titled Another Bullshit Night In Suck City looks as though it might reverse the trend.

So, even if De Niro has [almost] been crap for longer than he was great, let’s not get too bent out of shape about it. It’s a crass point to make, but it’s one often repeated; sometimes it’s only death that spares our greatest talents from making embarrassing career choices or fading into irrelevance. Can you imagine if The Beatles were still going now? Try not to self-immolate at the thought of them backing Olly Murs through a sprightly, autotuned version of Octopus’ Garden on The X-Factor. It’s only because De Niro was so very special in his prime that we’re so acutely disappointed by his decline.

Let us instead walk slowly and calmly away from New Year’s Eve with our palms in the air, be thankful that Bobby D is fit and healthy, and fondly recall the man at his best. Travis Bickle, Rupert Pupkin, Jake LaMotta, Noodles Aaronson, Jimmy Conway, Jack Walsh, Al Capone, Johnny Boy, Michael Vronsky, the young Vito Corleone. All brought to you by one man in his peak. We have DVDs. We have the internet. Some of us still have VHS. Let’s use them to remember and celebrate, and let De Niro get on with his old age.

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1. http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2011/dec/08/new-years-eve-film-review
2. http://movies.nytimes.com/2011/12/09/movies/garry-marshalls-star-filled-new-years-eve-review.html?ref=movies
3. http://www.npr.org/2011/12/08/143058008/on-new-years-eve-a-whole-lot-of-nothing-going-on
4. According to a recent article, De Niro actually fell asleep during the shooting of one scene with Hilary Swank http://www.starpulse.com/news/Fred_Topel/2011/12/08/robert_deniro_fell_asleep_during_a_sce
5. The New York Times carried an excellent piece about the rapidly changing nature of fame and celebrity in a 1983 review of The King of Comedy, and Bob Fosse’s harrowing Star 80: http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9901EFDA103BF934A15752C1A965948260
6. In a post-Queer Eye For The Straight Guy world, a Google search for ‘Ryan+Gosling+man+crush’ yields “about 292,000 results”. Furthermore, as we can see from this article, even Bradley Cooper agrees: Ryan Gosling is one sexy man! http://hollywoodcrush.mtv.com/2011/12/05/bradley-cooper-ryan-gosling-sexiest-man-alive/
7. Slightly at a tangent, but fascinating nonetheless, is this article from Bill Simmons’ Grantland website, which goes into great detail the nature of modern stardom with Will Smith as the test case. http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/6716942/page/2/the-movie-star

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?”.


Word Up! CAMEO WATCH with Larry Blackmon #2 – The Clash in The King of Comedy (Martin Scorsese, 1982)

The second in an occasional series of contributions from a bona fide star.

Yo! It’s Larry Blackmon here, and let me tell you this: what I don’t know about CAMEOS ain’t worth knowin’!

Today its the turn of Limey punks The Clash, and their blink-and-you’ll-miss-it (especially-if-you-didn’t-know-about-it) appearance as “Street Scum” in Scorsese’s bleak satire. It turns out that Marty and Bobby (de Niro) were big fans of the boys, and regulars at their legendary New York shows, so they invited them on set. OW!

Rarely spoken of in the hallowed context of his great work (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas etc.) and a massive box-office flop upon its release, The King of Comedy is one of Scorsese’s most underrated films. It’s strange – but I like it. Mightily prescient about today’s cult of celebrity, and full of treats (including Jerry Lewis’ magnificently sour performance as TV host Jerry Langford), it confounds expectations in a chilling manner; I guess the crackers who had seen Raging Bull a couple years before just weren’t ready for it. Shorn of the directorial pyrotechnics traditionally associated with Scorsese, it is filmed in a deliberately flat TV-sitcom style which foments the icy tone and disconnected-from-reality nature of the characters.

For my money, it also contains one of De Niro’s finest performances. As the ingratiating, insecure Pupkin, he totally disappears into the role, creating the type of wheedling wannabe who was probably a rarity in 1982, but is comparatively run-of-the-mill now. Compared to some of the freaks and psychopaths we’ve been exposed to in reality TV-land, Pupkin is someone you’d (almost) happily go for a Coca-Cola with.

Anyway, with regards to The Clash cameo – don’t just take my word for it,  I could be jivin’ you!  Have a watch: