Decades Blogathon – Casino (1995)

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1995

As hard as it may be to believe we are entering the home stretch of the Decades Blogathon, hosted by myself and the indubitable Tom from Digital Shortbread! The blogathon focuses on movies that were released in the fifth year of the decade. Tom and I are running different entries each day; and this one comes from Fernando at Committed To Celluloid. Fernando’s site is one of my favourites out there in the blogosphere, so do yourself a favour and take a visit!

Casino Poster

It seems so strange that Casino came out only 20 years ago. Martin Scorsese’s 1995 offering seems much older, and yes, I mean it as a compliment.

Arguably one of ole Marty’s best (or my favorite, anyway), Casino, not just because it’s set in that era, truly feels, looks and carries itself like a film of the seventies.

Casino

Riveting, stylish and peppered with bursts of extreme violence – something of a trademark for the director – I have an inkling Goodfellas’ better not-quite-a-sequel wouldn’t feel like the awkward stranger in the decade of timeless classics like Dog Day Afternoon, Chinatown and The Godfather Parts I and II.

High praise? It may be, but it’s not every day that a talky three-hour movie where not a lot goes on happens to breeze by and be totally absorbing, much less upon a second viewing.

The jazzy soundtrack is one tiny, yet pivotal part in the film’s success, which can mainly be attributed to two things: the superb script by Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi, filled with vibrant dialogue and just the right amount of humour, and the presence of Joe Pesci in a meaty role that called for the Oscar-winner’s brilliant performance.

Casino

Pesci’s Nicky throws around f-bombs like nobody’s business (for a while, the film held the record for most uses of the curse, with 435, or 2.4 times per minute on average) and is, at the same time, Casino’s main source of comic relief and its most frightening character. Who knew tiny could be so intimidating?

Despite being overshadowed by Pesci’s flashier performance, Robert De Niro (of course) and Sharon Stone are solid, and they look great in their lavish costumes too. Stone, in particular, looks breathtakingly beautiful during the first hour of the film, before her Ginger loses herself to drugs and booze. Sharon is a sparkly vision in her first scene, which is also Scorsese’s favorite.

Casino

Sitting comfortably at #140 in the IMDb Top 250 (at the time of this review), Casino may not be as loved as other Scorsese gems, but it’s a fantastic film that demonstrates why Marty is one of the best directors still in the business.

@FernandoRafael
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In Retrospect – New York, New York (1977)

Analyzing De Niro

I’m delighted to have contributed this review to You Talkin’ To Me‘s excellent Analyzing De Niro Blogathon, run by Mark at Marked Movies and Tyson at Head In A Vice. As the title suggests, the Blogathon focusses entirely on the movies of Mr Robert De Niro and this post covers Bobby’s third collaboration with Martin Scorsese, 1977’s New York, New York.

The long and fruitful partnership between Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese has spawned a multitude of enduring classics forever etched in our collective cinematic consciousness.

A misfire, but a fascinating one nonetheless, New York, New York is the oft neglected offspring of the formidable Scorsese/De Niro partnership

A misfire, but a fascinating one nonetheless, New York, New York is the oft neglected offspring of the formidable Scorsese/De Niro partnership

In the four years between the release of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, De Niro and Scorsese collaborated on New York, New York, the oft neglected offspring of their remarkable relationship.

After the critical and surprising commercial success of the apocalyptically dark Taxi Driver, an emboldened Scorsese used the bigger budget he was able to command to break away from down and dirty depictions of the Big Apple to instead direct what amounted to a love letter, both to the city of his birth and to the old Hollywood musicals he grew up watching.

Start spreading the news, it's Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli) and Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro) in New York, New York

Start spreading the news, it’s Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli) and Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro) in New York, New York

Scorsese cast De Niro in the lead role of Jimmy Doyle, a smooth talking egotist with a zany streak and a gift for the saxophone. Audiences at the time were used to seeing Bobby play wiseguys and sociopaths, so to watch him clowning around on screen must have been a novelty.

The film opens in New York on V-J Day in 1945 and spends the first 20 minutes inside a nightclub in full swing, with Jimmy, sporting a Hawaiian shirt and a shiny pair of spats he won in a bet, trying to work his magic on Liza Minnelli’s demobbed singer Francine. Through sheer force of will it seems, Jimmy eventually manages to woo Francine and the pair discover that her voice and his sax are made for each other.

Robert De Niro learned how to play the sax to play Jimmy Doyle in New York, New York

Robert De Niro learned how to play the sax to play Jimmy Doyle in New York, New York

A marriage and a child follow but, as Francine becomes more successful in her own right, Jimmy’s inherent insecurities, bullying nature and jealousy threaten to tear both their personal and professional ties apart.

De Niro could do no wrong at the time and prepared for the role in typically methodical fashion by learning to play the sax (although the arrangements were actually dubbed in post-production by the esteemed Georgie Auld). As such, he looks at home on stage leading his band and handles the sax with aplomb instead of looking like he picked it up five minutes before the cameras rolled.

New York, New YorkWe now know that De Niro can ‘do’ comedy almost as well as he does drama, but at the time it was uncertain if the actor, renowned for his on-screen intensity, would be able to sell funny. Minnelli’s reaction to some of De Niro’s goofing is priceless, while the scene with Jimmy feigning a war wound to get out of paying a hotel bill is pure slapstick.

The comedy gradually wears off as the picture becomes more of a relationship drama and it’s here Bobby spreads his wings. De Niro is a master of the long silent stare (the one where you’re unsure whether he’s going to explode with violent rage or not) and employs it to disquieting effect here on more than one occasion. Minnelli’s genuine unease in these moments is palpable.

Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro) gets into a spot of trouble in New York, New York

Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro) gets into a spot of trouble in New York, New York

As Cabaret had shown back in 1972, there was still an audience for musicals. However, unlike the Hollywood greats it was hoping to emulate, New York, New York suffers from confused plotting and a flabby narrative (the film is almost three hours long). Apparently, the actors ad-libbed much of the movie and it shows; scenes are allowed to play out for far too long and things aren’t helped by the tepid on-screen chemistry between De Niro and Minnelli.

A typically memorable Martin Scorsese shot in New York, New York

A typically memorable Martin Scorsese shot in New York, New York

Sandwiched between Travis Bickle and Jake Lamotta, De Niro’s Jimmy Doyle ain’t all that, but when considered as part of his overall career it’s a notable chapter for opening up audiences’ eyes to a part of his repertoire that he’s since gone on to enjoy considerable success with.

If for nothing else, the film gave Frank Sinatra one of his most iconic hits and provided nightclubbers with an end-of-evening drunken anthem.

Scorsese’s description of New York, New York as a ‘film noir musical’ is apt one –  both Old Hollywood (the lovely moment Jimmy watches a sailor dancing with his girl under the subway tracks is an affectionate wink to On The Town) and New Hollywood are fused into what might end up being a misfire, but a fascinating one nonetheless.

Directors Who Should Call It A Day

I recently ran the Debuts Blogathon with Chris at Terry Malloy’s Pigeon Coop which examined the first features of directors from the length and breadth of world cinema.

One of the areas I was keen for each entry to examine was whether a director’s early output matched their later work. It’s rare to find a director with an unblemished record, but there’s nothing sadder than seeing one whose work you once fervently followed becoming a shadow of their former selves.

In the same way that too many highly respected icons of the big screen gradually transform themselves into jobbing actors (I’m talking to you De Niro), there are unfortunately numerous examples of directors whose later films are a stark contrast to their early career.

You may disagree with some or all of these, but the following are five directors who really should call it a day for the sake of their professional credibility.

Who are the directors you wish would call it quits?

John Carpenter

John Carpenter

From his under-appreciated stoner sci-fi debut Dark Star, Carpenter went on a near-spotless run that included such undisputed genre classics as Assault On Precinct 13, Escape From New York, Halloween, Big Trouble In Little China, They Live and, of course, The Thing. It was always going to be a challenge to keep that sort of hit rate up, but the poorly received Escape From LA ushered in a slow, steady decline. Carpenter’s since limped on to direct a number of critical and commercial failures, including the ill-conceived Chevy Chase-starring Memoirs Of An Invisible Man, Ghosts Of Mars and, most recently, the little seen horror The Ward. Although Carpenter’s involvement in the numerous shoddy remakes/reimaginings of his best films seems to take up more of his time these days, one can only hope he decides not to tarnish his once great reputation by sitting himself down again in the director’s chair.

Francis Ford Coppola

Francis Ford Coppola

It can be argued that it’s a little unfair to include Francis Ford Coppola on this list as his last three projects – Youth Without Youth (2007), Tetro (2009) and Twixt (2011) – are smaller, more personal films, but the decline in the quality of his output is sad indeed when you consider what a titan he was. There was no greater filmmaker during the 1970s – The Godfather (1972), The Conversation (1974), The Godfather Part II (1974) and Apocalypse Now (1979) is as incredible a run as you’re ever likely to find – and Coppola recaptured some of this magic in his 80s movies Rumble Fish, The Cotton Club and Peggy Sue Got Married. But the wheels started to fall off with 1990’s The Godfather Part III (not a terrible film by any means, but a pale shadow of its earlier chapters) and by the time of the Robin Williams ‘comedy’ Jack Coppola had turned into what we hoped he’d never become – a hack-for-hire.

M. Night Shyamalan

M Night Shyamalan

What the hell happened to M. Night Shyamalan? Or was he nothing more than a one-trick pony? The Sixth Sense announced Shyamalan’s arrival in some style, while its superior follow-up Unbreakable (his best film) and alien invasion movie Signs seemed to suggest he was the real deal (let’s forget the final five minutes of Signs just for now). Even 2004’s The Village had its moments, but the cracks started to show in 2006’s Lady In The Water, which features a film critic being horribly killed (in case you wondered whether Shyamalan has a sense of humour, that was your answer). From there his movies have continued to soil a once-promising career, most notably 2008’s The Happening, a film so baffling in its concept and so inept in its execution you have to admire the fact it got made in the first place.

Brian De Palma

Brian De Palma

Five years before Robert De Niro exploded onto the big screen in Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets he got his big break in De Palma’s 1968 satire Greetings. De Palma actually gave De Niro his first screen appearance in The Wedding Party, released in 1969, but made six years earlier. For this alone De Palma deserves credit, although he didn’t need Bobby’s help to direct some genuine classics of late 70s and 80s American cinema, including Carrie (1976), Blow Out (1981), Scarface (1983), The Untouchables (1986) and the troubling Casualties Of War (1989). His last great work – Carlito’s Way – was made 20 years ago and in the intervening period his career has gradually nose-dived, from clunky sci-fi Mission To Mars, to the heavy-handed War on Terror polemic Redacted and deeply disappointing The Black Dahlia, which merely underlined his status as the poor man’s Alfred Hitchcock. To make matters worse, his most recent film, 2012’s Passion pales in comparison to his earlier erotic thrillers. Time to bow out Brian.

Tim Burton

Tim Burton

There was a time when I awaited a new Tim Burton film with genuine anticipation. In the late 80s and 90s Burton was responsible for a whole new aesthetic in Hollywood moviemaking. Burton-esque even became a term to describe a certain brand of weird and wonderful cinema, while his surprising appointment as the director of 1989’s hugely successful Batman became the template used by Marvel two decades later (Kenneth Branagh being chosen to direct Thor, for example). Burton has generally been at his best when sticking to more personal material; the problem is that he doesn’t stick to this, choosing instead to clutter his filmography with ever-more disappointing big budget studio pictures, from the misguided Planet Of The Apes remake, to the lacklustre Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, woeful Alice In Wonderland and boring Dark Shadows. There was hope in 2012’s Frankenweenie, but when taken alongside his recent output this feels like a blip in an otherwise stalled career.

Review – Silver Linings Playbook

A quick glance at the plot for Silver Linings Playbook and you’d be forgiven for expecting yet another excruciating Hollywood romantic comedy, the kind that Gerard Butler and Jennifer Aniston seem to find themselves in.

Silver Linings Playbook

David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook – “smart and spiky screwball comedy for the internet age”

What should make this film even worse is that its central figure Pat Jr (Bradley Cooper) has bipolar disorder, which normally results in the sort of turned-up-to-11  manic performance that cries out for an Academy Award.

The fact that Silver Linings Playbook manages to avoid the trap doors and skirts around the clichés is largely down to the mercurial David O. Russell, who adapts and directs this smart and spiky screwball comedy for the internet age from Matthew Quick’s short story.

Pat is diagnosed after attacking his wife’s lover in the shower and, after eight months in a psychiatric institution is released into the care of his OCD-afflicted, Philadelphia Eagles-obsessed father Pat Snr (Robert De Niro) and long-suffering mother Dolores (Australian actress Jacki Weaver). Without a job or a wife, Pat is determined to rebuild his life, believing that if he gets fit and stays positive he can save his marriage.

At a friend’s dinner party he meets the self-destructive Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who has tried to overcome her grief at the death of her husband by sleeping around. Tiffany offers Pat a deal – she’ll help him reconnect with his wife as long as he becomes his dance partner for an upcoming ballroom competition.

Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) and Pat (Bradley Cooper) audition for Strictly Come Dancing in Silver Linings Playbook

Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) and Pat (Bradley Cooper) audition for Strictly Come Dancing in Silver Linings Playbook

Russell knows the rom-com tropes – Pat and Tiffany are clearly made for each other – but in the best tradition of those classic screwball comedies, all the fun comes in how these two broken souls finally realise what the audience have known all along.

Crucially, the chemistry between Cooper and Lawrence is fantastic. They fizz off each other like a pair of firecrackers, from the amusing dinner party when they swap anti-depressant stories like Christmas cards to the sultry dance sequences.

The two are equally tactless, whether it be Pat asking Tiffany how many people she slept with in her office before being fired, or Tiffany saving Pat the bother of reading Lord of the Flies by summarising it for him and throwing the book away, annoyed he’s only reading it because it’s on the high school syllabus his estranged wife is teaching (reflecting an earlier scene when Pat throws a copy of A Farewell to Arms through the window because he’s disgusted with the pessimistic ending).

"Go Eagles!" Pat Jnr (Bradley Cooper) and Pat Snr (Robert De Niro) celebrate in Silver Linings Playbook

“Go Eagles!” Pat Jnr (Bradley Cooper) and Pat Snr (Robert De Niro) celebrate in Silver Linings Playbook

This is no smooth ride to love of course; Tiffany attacks Pat for being “afraid to be alive” and feels increasingly used by her dance partner as nothing more than a tool in which to win back his spouse. Pat feels guilty for getting closer to Tiffany and suffers a number of violent bipolar episodes, including one in the reception of his therapist Dr Patel (Bollywood favourite Anupam Kher).

Pat Snr, meanwhile, faces his own struggles. In one moving scene, beautifully played by De Niro, he has a moment of guilty realisation that father and son are perhaps more alike than he thought and tries to find some common ground over their shared love of the Eagles.

Cooper has never been better, which admittedly isn’t saying a lot as his output, until now, has hardly been stellar. He isn’t afraid to make Pat unlikeable and restrains himself from falling back on the pretty-boy mugging he’s been guilty of in the past.

Pat Jnr (Bradley Cooper) tries to stay on top of his bipolar disorder in Silver Linings Playbook

Pat Jnr (Bradley Cooper) tries to stay on top of his bipolar disorder in Silver Linings Playbook

After years of picking up the pay cheque, it’s great to see De Niro back on form. For once, he looks fully engaged and appears to enjoy playing opposite Cooper again (following the patchy Limitless).

In lesser hands, the role of Tiffany could have become unbearably kooky or flaky. Apparently Russell originally had Zooey Deschanel in mind for the part, so one can only imagine how painful that would have been to watch.

Instead, Lawrence forgoes the crazy and brings a vulnerability to the role that’s refreshing to see. Instead of relying on a pout or a flailing of the limbs, she does a lot of her work with her eyes, expressing confidence, defensiveness or pain in a single look.

The exaggerated family dynamic and pent up emotions bring to mind Russell’s previous film The Fighter, but while that film somewhat lost its way, here he maintains a sharp focus and sweeps you along so persuasively that come the final dance contest you’ll be willing them on along with the rest.