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From the DVD Shelf: The Deer Hunter (1978)

A few years ago when I was watching the documentary I Knew it was You: Rediscovering John Cazale (a really incredible short documentary that is well worth checking out — click here for my review), I commented that of Mr. Cazale’s five films, the only one that I hadn’t seen was The Deer Hunter. When Universal decided to release a nice new blu-ray of the film as part of their 100 year anniversary celebration, it seemed like it was finally time for me to remedy that.

The Deer Hunter is a powerful anti-war film, co-written and directed by Michael Cimino. It concerns the effects of the Vietnam war on a small group of friends from a Pittsburgh steel town. The very long (over three hours) film basically has three distinct sections.

The first act, well over an hour long, depicts a tumultuous day and a half in the life of Mike (Robert de Niro) and his steel-worker buddies. When we meet them, they are finishing a day’s work in the steel mill. They head to a bar to relax, and we learn that that night is Steven (John Savage)’s wedding, an event which the film depicts in geat detail. I don’t recall this lengthy an on-screen wedding celebration since The Godfather. The weddings in both films serve a similar function: slowly introducing us to all of the characters and their relationships.

I love how Mr. Cimino (working from a script he co-wrote with Deric Washburn, which was adapted in part from a script by Louis Garfinkle and Quinn Redeker) takes his sweet time with the opening act.  We really live with these characters for a while, and I think that gives the film’s second and third segments that much more power.  We spent time in this opening act learning some character details that don’t really go anywhere in terms of the film’s plot — I’m thinking specifically of the scene with Meryl Streep’s character Linda and her abusive father — but which enrich our understanding of these people and their lives.  The wedding itself takes up a huge chunk of screen-time, but none of it feels extraneous or wasted.  Indeed, the 30-40 minutes we spend at the wedding might be my favorite part of the film!

The film’s second act takes place in Vietnam.  We skip right over all the usual basic training sequences, and also over seeing our characters’ reactions to arriving in Vietnam.  Instead, we jump right into the middle of a harrowing sequence in which Mike (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken) and Steven (John Savage) are being held captive by a group of Viet Cong soldiers.  The captured American soldiers are forced to play Russian … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Raging Bull (1980)

Well, after finally watching, for the first time, Martin Scorsese’s seminal 1976 film Taxi Driver (click here for my review), I decided to move on to another gaping hole in my film-watching history: Raging Bull.

I of course knew that Robert De Niro starred in the film as real-life boxer Jake La Motta.  Raging Bull follows Jake’s life for about twenty-five years, from his early days as a lean, hungry-for-a-chance boxer to his middle-age as an over-the-hill, over-weight ex-con.  As was Taxi Driver, Raging Bull is a tour de force acting performance by Robert De Niro.  (It’s amazing to me that the Robert De Niro we see today in the Meet the Parents films is the same man as this incredibly intense, powerful actor seen in these films from three decades ago.)  I suspect everyone reading this blog know the stories of Mr. De Niro’s astonishing weight-gain (during a planned hiatus in filming) so that he could portray with full emotional honesty the fat failure De Motta became after the collapse of his boxing career.  Frankly, it feels to me like a bit of overindulgent actorly nonsense that Mr. De Niro believed the only way he could portray the over-the-hill De Motta was by gaining the weight himself (rather than using any prosthetics).  I could name many great actors who have created AMAZING performances when buried under prosthetics, thus bringing all manner of often-otherworldly characters to incredible light.  And I’m not just talking about actors in sci-fi or fantasy movies.  Yes, there were some tremendous prosthetics-enhanced performances in, say, the Lord of the Rings films (John Rhys-Davies as Gimli comes to mind), but how about Orson Welles in Citizen Kane?? (Read my thoughts on Citizen Kane here.)

Be that as it may, there is something viscerally shocking when we get our first glimpse of the rotund late-in-life La Motta, knowing that the flabby form we’re seeing is Mr. De Niro’s real body.  It’s hard to believe that the lean, well-muscled boxer we saw earlier has transformed into this sorry sight, and even HARDER to believe that one actor made the same transformation in just a few months.

But there’s far more to Mr. De Niro’s performance than just the gimmick of his weight gain.  In fact, in some ways, I think all that focus on the weight gain distracts from what a phenomenally compelling performance Mr. De Niro delivers in the film.  As in Taxi Driver, Mr. De Niro’s intensity reaches out from the screen and grabs the viewer by the throat, forcing you to keep watching him, daring you to look away.  In his own way, the angry, jealous, wife-beating La Motta is just as … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Taxi Driver (1976)

Can you believe I’d never seen Taxi Driver?

I’m fairly well-seen when it comes to famous films, and I’m a big fan of Martin Scorsese.  But somehow I’d never seen Taxi Driver or Raging Bull. Well, last month I finally saw them both.  I’ll be back next week with my thoughts on Raging Bull, but for now let’s dive into Taxi Driver.

Holy cow, what a great movie!!

The film feels just as potent and dangerous as it must have felt back in 1976.  I was on edge right from the very beginning.  From the first instant we meet lonely, insomniac Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), it’s clear this young man is a time bomb just ticking down the moments until it’s going to explode.  Mr. Scorsese and Mr. De Niro’s partnership has never been more powerful than it was in this film, their focus laser-sharp on the roiling emotions of this lost young man.

Robert De Niro is simply astounding as Travis, jaw-dropingly fierce as the self-descibed “God’s lonely man.”  He seems almost gentle when we first meet him, quietly applying for a job driving a taxi.  When we see him start to somewhat haplessly woo the young campaign-worker Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), though, it’s more uncomfortable than comic, since it’s clear this isn’t going to end well.  We see a hint of charisma, and an intriguing intensity, when he marches into Palantine’s campaign office to ask Betsy out on a date, and watching that intensity turn brittle and then angry at the world around him is the tragedy of Taxi Driver.

The film is not a war movie, but I found it impossible to watch Taxi Driver without feeling constantly that the film was deeply rooted in the social and psychological ramifications of the Vietnam War.  Travis is a vet, and although his experiences in ‘Nam are never explicitly discussed in the film, to me that piece of backstory flavored everything I was watching unfold.  This character who is a stranger in his own skin, who had difficulty fitting in to society’s expectations, feels similar to the struggle that countless Vietnam veterans must have gone through following their return home.  That Travis also finds himself drawn towards violence feels all the more tragically unsurprising because of his Vietnam experiences.

As was often the case with Mr. De Niro’s early performances, the physicality that he brought to the part was a critical combination with his riveting intensity.  Much has been written, of course, of Mr. De Niro’s dramatic weight gain to depict the late-in-life Jake La Motta in Raging Bull, but in Taxi Driver Mr. De Niro brings exactly the opposite physical presence.  There’s a scene late in the film, … [continued]

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Once Upon a Time in America

I love trolling the discount bins at Newbury Comics and other stores that sell DVDs, because you never know what sort of fun treasures you’ll find for very little money.

Case in point:  I recently came across Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America.  I had heard of this film but had never seen it, so I looked the DVD over.  An over three-hour gangster epic, starring Robert DeNiro and James Woods?  Sign me up!

Originally released in 1984, Leone’s sprawling tale covers about 50 years in the lives of a group of Jewish friends, from their days growing up on the streets on the Lower East Side, to their rise through the ranks of the New York City underworld to, of course, the eventual tragedies that usually end these sorts of crime stories.  The film was received poorly upon its release in the States, probably because the studio took Leone’s lengthy epic and severely truncated it — not only cutting out enormous swaths of footage but also removing Leone’s intricate narrative structure of flashbacks within flashbacks, and instead presenting the film linearly.  This DVD presents a restored version of Leone’s 229 minute cut (although the disc’s special features refer to extensive additional footage that Leone considered “essential” and yet was not included in this version).

Although he might portray the least convincing on-screen Jew since Elijah Wood in Everything is Illuminated (although that’s not a knock against Wood’s powerful performance in that vastly underrated movie!), Robert DeNiro creates a fascinating character in his portrayal of the man nicknamed Noodles.  Throughout his life, Noodles struggles to balance his sharp intelligence with his more violent impulses, and his ambition with his limited worldview.  Time after time, most of Noodles’ choices are defined in association with, and sometimes in contrast to, his close friend Max, played by James Woods.  From their very first meeting as kids, the two share a tight bond as well as a fierce rivalry, and much of the power of Once Upon a Time in America comes from the examination  of their relationship over the course of their lives.  

Just as New York City was a major character in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (about which I wrote yesterday) so too is the essence of New York  an important element in the tone of this film.  The gorgeous sets and locations, combined with Leone’s direction, create a compelling picture of old New York.  The film’s title puts one in the mind of a fairy tale, and perhaps this film’s picture of life in the Lower East Side has equal footing in both reality and fantasy.  (Having not lived there during the time-period of the … [continued]

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What Just Happened?

Having recently read the book What Just Happened? by Hollywood producer Art Linson, I was naturally intrigued to find out that a movie based on the book was about to be released to theatres.  (Albeit rather under the radar, as no one I know of has heard of the film.)

Well, the film What Just Happened (without the question mark that was in the book title), directed by Barry Levinson, was indeed released last month.  It stars Robert DeNiro, Bruce Willis, Stanley Tucci, John Turturro, Catherine Keener, and Ribun Wright Penn.  And it’s directed by Barry Levinson, who helmed Diner, Good Morning Vietnam,  Rain Man, and Wag the Dog.  With such talent behind and in front of the camera, it’s somewhat disappointing to realize that the film is just mediocre.

The book What Just Happened? takes place over the course of several years in the life of Art Linson, during which he worked as a producer for 20th Century Fox and produced one bomb after another.  (Not intentionally, mind you!)  The film What Just Happened takes several of the best stories from the book and works them into the fictionalized tale of a week in the life of Hollywood producer Ben (DeNiro), trying to stay afloat as he deals with weasely agents, egomaniacal stars, and his own personal problems. 

There is certainly fun to be had in the film.  DeNiro is great, as always.  He invests Ben with a certain good humor and even — dare I say it? — some dignity.  He’s just a lot of fun to watch, as he subsumes the tough-guy persona he’s so often played on screen beneath Ben’s schlubby skin.  (I could almost imagine the part being played by Woody Allen.)  And Bruce Willis is a riot in the Alec Baldwin role.  While producing The Edge, Linson had a famous enounter with Alec Baldwin who, though he had been cast as the young hunky photographer in the film, showed up overweight and with a mountain-man beard that he refused to shave.  Well, no surprise, that conflict is a central one in the film, and the scene where De Niro confronts Willis is a gem.

But the movie isn’t quite the laugh riot I was expecting.  Levinson has often demonstrated as strong an interest in the dramatic storylines in his films as with the comedic elements.  In his best work, he’s able to balance the two to produce something really powerful.  Here, the drama and the comedy don’t quite mesh.  There are long stretches of the film without much to laugh about, but those dramatic stretches didn’t have the impact that I’d imagine Levinson intended, at least not for me.  I never became … [continued]