(On TV, November 2018) Yes, trivia fans, it is true: Robert de Niro once directed a movie. Not only that, but he directed A Bronx Tale, written by fellow actor Chazz Palminteri and based on Palminteri true-life childhood stories. Surprising no one, it’s about growing up in the Bronx during the 1960s, and having to deal with the neighbourhood gangsters. De Niro himself has a secondary role as the bus-driving father of the young protagonist while Palminteri plays the local mobster. The movie quickly sets up a dynamic in which the hero has to choose a father figure between two men, one of them law-abiding and dull, while the other definitely isn’t. It’s a story with gangsters rather than a gangster story: the point is to show the realities of growing up in that neighbourhood and being tempted by The Life. As a period piece, it’s nicely done and somewhat successful: the nostalgia is effective without being overpowering, while the music sets a tone that the film follows. A Bronx Tale is likable, perhaps not a classic but a worthwhile companion piece to many other all-out gangster films.
(On DVD, September 2018) There are obviously some grandiose intentions at play in Once Upon a Time in America, from the sweeping title to the expansive running time to the intention of presenting a crime saga throughout the decades. The similarities to the Godfather movies are numerous, and they start with having Robert de Niro play a gangster. You can imagine writer/director Sergio Leone gleefully embarking on this project, wind in his sails from having completed the Man with No Name trilogy and Once Upon a Time in the West. He certainly brings a somewhat… European sensibility to the project, making his protagonist a very lusty lad (there are two rapes in the film, one of them played for laughs) in addition to the usual graphic violence. The film is famous for a decade-long development process and for being incredibly long especially with its preferred director’s cut. (Today, it would have been made as a prestige miniseries). Much of this editing shows—not all of the film is coherent, and the rhythm of the film constantly stops and go. While ambitious, Once Upon a Time in America isn’t quite as successful as it thinks—it’s long, it takes forever to start, it lacks the moment-to-moment watchability and overall control to truly succeed. Missed opportunities and all that.
(Second viewing, On Cable TV, September 2018) I saw Analyze That in theatres during its first run, but somehow didn’t write any review of it since then. As oversights go, this is about as minor as the film actually is—as a sequel to the better-known Analyze This, it lazily reteams Billy Crystal with Robert de Niro as a psychoanalyst helping a mob boss deal with his repressed issues. This time, the dynamics are a bit different as de Niro’s character is out of jail and under Crystal’s custody in an attempt to flush out a mob rival. The film also gets slightly auto-referential in making the de Niro’s character become a consultant on an over-the-top mob TV series, which is good for a few inside jokes about the film industry. Still, much of the fun remains the same—Crystal playing his neurotic character against de Niro’s then-unusual mockery of his own persona. Given that de Niro has done little but keep going in that vein for the past fifteen years, that aspect of Analyze That has definitely lost some of its lustre. The film’s biggest problem, though, is that it’s immediately forgettable—I kept watching the film, occasionally doubting that I had, in fact, seen it until I got to the end and was reminded that “ends with a crane and a money-truck heist” was a correct recollection of the film (but not to be confused with Mickey Blue Eyes). It’s entertaining enough (de Niro’s self-mockery still feels more vital here than the copies-of-copies of the same parody he’s been doing since then) but don’t expect a magical experience. Or even to remember much of it moments later.
(Second viewing, On DVD, November 2017) I distinctly recall seeing Heat on video in the late nineties, but couldn’t find any review of it anywhere in my archives. Oh well—it’s a good excuse to revisit one of the best crime movies of its decade. As it turns out, I had forgotten a lot about the film and had the pleasure of rediscovering it again. Sure, I remembered the dinner conversation between de Niro and Pacino. Of course, I remembered the downtown LA shootout. But it turns out I didn’t remember half of it, and nearly nothing of the rest of the movie. Long but impressively dense, Heat compares well to the best of Hong Kong crime cinema in showing policemen and criminals as two sides of a similar coin, and finding humanity in stock characters. It’s a sprawling story with roughly a dozen subplots, and I have a feeling that it would best be presented today as a Netflix miniseries rather than a movie. Still, what we see on-screen in slightly less than three hours is mesmerizing enough: A convincing take on mid-nineties Los Angeles, featuring a variety of characters with rich lives. The script has moments of street poetry, and the action sequences hit hard. It surely helps that the casting of the film is amazing. Beyond having Robert de Niro and Al Pacino as co-leads, the cast is rich down to small roles played by then-obscure Danny Trejo and Natalie Portman. Take a look at the cast list and see Val Kilmer, Jon Voigt, Tom Sizemore, Amy Brenneman, Ashley Judd, Wes Studi, Dennis Haysbert, William Fichner, Tom Noonan, Hank Azaria, Henry Rollins, Jeremy Piven … it just doesn’t stop. Still, Pacino and de Niro get most of the glory here, with roles seemingly tailor-made for them—their dinner face-off is crackling good, and still exceeds the entirety of their movie-long reunion in Righteous Kill. Pacino is particularly in his element here, and his verbal excesses match the script. (Fans of TMZ will recognize that the “GREAT ASS!!!” meme/clip comes from here.) Otherwise, it’s Michael Mann’s show. While I’ve found many of his more recent movies to be pretentious, overlong and underwhelming, Heat is where nearly everything he’s got is used at its best advantage. Los Angeles looks brilliant, the direction is weighty in a way that matches the film and the actors all do their utmost best. I can quibble about a few lengths (especially late in the film, with a drawn-out final face-off), but I find that my first-viewing appreciation of the film has been replaced by a much more positive assessment after this re-watch.
(On Cable TV, October 2017) Of all the things I didn’t really want to see, a sensitive, almost exculpatory look at celebrity fraudster Bernie Madoff is way up there. (If there was any justice in the world, Madoff should have fuelled a few more years of Occupy Wall Street.) It does take a while for The Wizard of Lies to overcome this prejudice, especially at it seems to spend its first hour explaining how, aw shucks, Madoff kind of, you know, stumbled into massive pyramid schemes as a business model. But, slowly, the movie does get better. It helps that Madoff is played by Robert de Niro (finally acting, for a change) and that capable actors such as Michelle Pfeiffer and Hank Azaria (under the watchful eye of director Barry Levinson) are there to keep up their halves of dialogues. The script struggles under the weight of the accepted biopic standards, allowing itself a few fanciful moments to break the monotony. But The Wizard of Lies hits its strides during its last act, as the weight of Madoff’s criminal acts finally catch up with him well after incarceration. His name now synonymous with fraud, his wife leaves him to rot in jail and his son commits suicide. At more than two hours, this made-for HBO film is a modest success but it may not be as good as it could have been. Madoff’s warm portrayal can be infuriating, but the film does lack a bit of extra energy, especially at first, to make it compulsively watchable. Still, it’s a fairly worthwhile entry in HBO Films’ long list of biopics … and it deserved its Emmy nominations.
(On Cable TV, October 2017) The mid-nineties were a surprisingly good time for solid thrillers, and Sleepers works not because of its atypical revenge plot or unobtrusive direction but largely because it managed to bring together an impressive group of actors. In-between Kevin Bacon, Jason Patric, Brad Pitt, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman and the always-compelling Minnie Driver, it’s a nice mixture of generations and styles. It helps that the script is built solidly around an unusual conceit, with an ambitious lawyer doing his best to lose a case but make sure it’s widely publicized to take revenge upon childhood enemies. A blend of courtroom thriller and working-class drama, Sleepers may or may not be based on a true story, but it works well as fiction. Despite revolving around difficult subjects such as child abuse, Sleepers manages to be slightly comforting in how it ensures a victory of sorts for its characters, present a solid underdog story in an accessible fashion, and largely depends on familiar actors doing what they do best. Director Barry Levinson mostly stays out of the way of his actors, and the result is curiously easy to watch despite harsh sequences.
(Netflix Streaming, September 2017) If you’re going to remake a classic film, you might as well get Scorsese to direct, and get the original film’s two main actors in minor roles. That’s as close to a stamp of approval as you’ll ever get, although a title sequence by Saul Bass and reprising the original’s music score by Bernard Hermann also helps. Suffice to say that overall, the 1991 version of Cape Fear is a good movie and a successful remake of its predecessor. It updates the story, adds more details for savvier audiences (including the whole “restraining order” stuff missing from the original), cranks up the violence, doesn’t shy away from details that would have been too intense for audiences of the original 1962 film, and uses every trick of then-modern cinematography. With Scorsese at the helm, the direction is intentionally jarring, and the actors are following a coherent plan. While Nick Nolte is solid as the father trying to defend himself and his family against a dangerous ex-convict, it’s Robert de Niro who steals the spotlight as the villain Max Cady, with some assistance from Juliette Lewis as a teenage prey. The only problem in de Niro’s performance is that it’s based on an overcooked character: Not only is Cady dangerous in the criminal sense, he’s also implausibly well informed in matter of law and literature, making him seem less real than the rough and canny bruiser in the original. I’m also not terribly happy at the way the film dispenses with the character as compared to the original in which the family got to keep some of its innocence. Some artistic choices do date the film more precisely than I’d like—the credit sequence and some gratuitous recolouring of some sequences now seem more ridiculous than threatening. Still, all in all, Cape Fear is a good thriller by a master of the form, a decent homage to the original while polishing some of the first film’s most disappointing aspects. See it, but see it alongside the original.
(On Cable TV, August 2017) While acknowledging that The Mission is a good film, I must also report my almost complete lack of interest in it. The story of missionaries deep in unsympathetic South American surroundings, The Mission is a heartfelt look at a difficult chapter in history. Despite the lavish location shooting, the colourful cinematography, the calibre of the actors (not only Robert de Niro and Jeremy Irons, but also Aidan Quinn and Liam Neeson in minor roles) and the serious subject matter presented soberly, I repeatedly failed to become interested in The Mission. Bad timing? Esoteric subject matter? Overdose of epic films? I don’t know. Maybe I’ll try again in a decade or two.
(On Cable TV, July 2017) This is terrible. No, not Midnight Run itself, but the fact that Robert de Niro has made so many bad movies since 2000 that even a mildly enjoyable middle-of-the road effort like Midnight Run can feel like it features an entirely different actor. Coming from the late-eighties buddy-movie action road movie factory, Midnight Run often feels like a straightforward comic thriller. It hits all of the right plot beats more or less in order, sets up a decent ticking-clock mechanism, doesn’t make any risky moves, moves fairly briskly and doesn’t forget to have a little bit of heart along the way. In short, it just works, and it works in large part because we have a younger-looking de Niro taking up the lead role with some energy and determination. While not great art, Midnight Run is solid entertainment, and the look at 1988 America (no internet, limited ways to travel, to pay, etc.) is now just dated enough to be interesting. I had a decent time watching it, and few other qualifiers are necessary.
(On Cable TV, May 2017) I’m not sure what I was expecting from Awakenings—seeing Robin Williams as a doctor, maybe something along the lines of Patch Adams? What I did get was more than expected. The first half of Awakenings is good without being particularly striking: Here are patients immobilized by a rare disease; here’s an unconventional doctor trying a new radical therapy to improve their condition and break them out of their catatonia. When, against all odds, it works, it’s the film’s big triumphant moment: People are free to live again, experience the world and blossom against all odds. The film’s real kicker, however, happens when the therapy stops being effective, and the newly awakened patients are dragged back in catatonia. It does give to Awakenings an efficient dose of wistfulness, and a stronger “experience life before it’s taken away from you” message. Robin Williams is good and not overbearing in a more serious role than usual, while Robert de Niro turns in a respectable performance as a patient who comes out of catatonia before facing the prospect of sinking back into it. Awakenings may be best approached with low expectations—it’s not a great movie, but it’s noteworthy and far from being as sappy as it could have been. It’s not comfortable and works better because of it.
(On Cable TV, May 2017) Given that Little Fockers (such wit in the titling!) is the fourth film in the Meet the Parents series, anyone who doesn’t like it despite having seen the previous movies only has themselves to blame. An easy grab-bag of humiliation comedy, repeated routines, gross gags and repetitive character interaction, Little Fockers is pretty much what you can expect from it. Oh, let’s see the protagonist spar with his father-in-law, get into humiliating situations and save the day at the end—how novel. How lazy. This is not a film for subtlety or surprises: jokes can be seen well in advance, their point seems to be as much embarrassment as possible and who cares if they’re rehashing conflicts from the previous three movies? Still, it’s surprising that the project was able to attract and retain so many name actors, including a reportedly reluctant Dustin Hoffman who barely shows up in a few disconnected scenes. Charitably, it’s hard not to mention that after four movies spanning ten years, Little Fockers feels like an episode in a long-running sitcom: What are those unchanging characters up to? Fortunately, it now looks as if the series will stop there. A good thing too, given that every time a new one is released, you can hear Ben Stiller and Robert de Niro’s reputation sink to new lows.
(Second viewing, On Cable TV, October 2016) I saw The Deer Hunter decades ago, but couldn’t remember much other than the Russian roulette sequences. Watching it again reminded me why. As much as there’s a lot to like in the story of blue-collar workers being irremediably damaged by their Vietnam experience, the film is just too long and meandering to be as effective as it could be. The interminable wedding sequence springs to mind as the worst culprit here (boo, director Michael Cimino, boo) although there’s enough fluff elsewhere in the film to make the running time balloon even higher. At least the film is blessed with a few terrific performance, the best being a very young Robert de Niro as a quiet hunter, an equally young Christopher Walken as the one who goes crazy, and Meryl Streep as the object of their affection. Great sequences also fill the movie, but the connective material between them kills much of the film’s urgency, and takes away from the relatively straightforward plotting. The Deer Hunter’s then-daring portrait of soldiers as real people without glorifying war heroics doesn’t come across as clearly now, given the steps taken to humanize warriors in later movies. A classic for a good reason, The Deer Hunter is not a bad piece of work—although its emotional impact is bound to vary widely.
(Video on Demand, June 2016) Comedy is intensely subjective, and it’s hard to find a better example of this than Dirty Grandpa, which had me chuckling and smiling throughout despite earning atrocious reviews from just about any serious movie critic. How to explain it? I can’t. I can only report that Dirty Grandpa manages to create, fairly early on, an atmosphere in which nearly every scabrous or raunchy gag gets a reaction. Drugs at a funeral, and a sexually obsessed retiree? From that moment on, it just gets dumber and funnier. From afar, it’s easy to claim this vulgar and meaningless film as a nadir for Robert de Niro, but if you’re under the film’s charm, his performance as a perverted old man looking for the sexual experience he denied himself until his wife’s death is nothing short of a go-for-broke exercise in deliberate offensiveness. (More intriguingly, it plays with some deeply held social convictions of how a senior should act like, giving Dirty Grandpa at least a veneer of honest transgression.) Alongside such a ferocious committal to comedy, co-star Zak Efron merely has to stay put and react appropriately. Great supporting performances by Aubrey Plaza (playing a far more active kind of comedy than she usually does) as a grandpa-chaser and Jason Mantzoukas as an unrepentant drug dealer both add a lot to the film. I’m never going to seriously argue that Dirty Grandpa is a good movie—it’s by-the-number comedy, made more daring by pushing the boundaries of vulgarity and throwing old-person jokes in the mix for added offensiveness. There are some lengthy lulls, and the secret to appreciating de Niro’s performance is forgetting his Academy Awards entirely. But here’s the terrible truth: the film made me laugh, and it made me laugh a fair amount more than many of the most respected films of the past year or so. I half-suspect that I’ll see Dirty Grandpa again in the future and wonder what I was thinking when I wrote this review. In the meantime, though, I just have to think about de Niro’s gleefully crude character to get a quick smile.
(Second viewing, On Cable TV, June 2016) My memory may be playing tricks on me, because I remembered Backdraft as a more iconic film than this second viewing suggests. Despite the far better picture quality of watching this in HD as compared to standard television (maybe VHS) resolution, the film feels a bit smaller this time around. Oh, don’t misunderstand me: I still think Backdraft is the iconic firefighting movie. Fire plays a lead character in the film, the script manages to play with enough suspense elements to keep things interesting. Ron Howard’s direction is the apogee of early-nineties slickness, while a group of great actors do interesting things together, from a dynamic Robert de Niro (back when he wasn’t playing a caricature of himself), to the incomparable Kurt Russell to an unusually strong turn by William Baldwin. Even Donald Sutherland (seemingly as old then as he is now) turns up in a pair of memorable scenes. The firefighting action sequences remain unparallelled, especially than last scenes with the exploding barrels. But in my mind, I had built up Backdraft as something a bit more grandiose than it is. I’m certainly not calling for a remake, but I’m welcoming this as a reminder not to set my expectations too high as I revisit blockbuster movies I haven’t seen in a long time.
(On Cable TV, May 2016) It would be far too easy to dismiss The Intern based on conventional expectations. As with nearly all of writer/director Nancy Meyers’s films, this is mild-mannered drama featuring rich white people, with absurdly privileged stakes and a near-absence of conflict. It would be equally easy to expect the worst from Robert de Niro (who, in fifteen years, has completed his transformation from a vital dramatic actor to a walking punchline), be annoyed by Anne Hathaway playing a dot-com entrepreneur or complain about the expected life lesson of “old people have much to teach to the younger generation”. Once you’ve completed your pre-viewing gagging, though, have a look at the film, because The Intern is quite a bit better than expectations would suggest. Perhaps the biggest surprise here is Robert de Niro, who actually manages to turn a good and poignant performance as a seventy-year-old widower returning to work out of sheer boredom. Once the obvious jokes about technology have been made, the film is free to explore notions of old-school masculinity in a modern context, and de Niro makes for a splendid role model given how he’s not asked to parody his usual persona. (One notes that the role was originally planned for Michael Caine.) The script’s gentle rhythm feels like a welcome change of pace for mainstream comedies, and there are a few highlights here and there: Rene Russo pops up as a love interest (ten years younger than de Niro, but that’s still not too bad), a few scenes of physical comedy are funnier than expected and the film does get better as it goes along. There are a few weaker moments, many of them having to do with an infidelity subplot, but The Intern defies expectations by being better than it should have been. It will work better on viewers who are ready for another Meyers film—her style may not be conventional, but her movies often act as breaks from routine. While The Intern may not set audiences ablaze or age very well (the dot-com chatter alone may date the film within a few years), it does what it intends to do and tries to do something easily dismissed but rarely attempted in mainstream Hollywood.