Tag: robert de niro

Joker


Joker (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Todd Phillips’ “Joker” stares directly into the dark well of a man’s misery and asks the viewers to endure a series of highly uncomfortable, humiliating, and desperate situations. Although there are sudden, gruesome violence and plenty of blame to go around—government corruption, systems in place designed to keep the poor longing and powerless while the rich remain thriving and in charge, the way we choose to treat our neighbors—it trusts the audience to find empathy and compassion toward a person whose life is not without laughter but utterly, cripplingly devoid of joy. It is most appropriate that we meet Arthur Fleck, a clown by day and an aspiring standup comedian at night, from behind as he faces a mirror. Because in order to understand him, even appreciate him, we are required to take a look at ourselves.

The titular character may have comic book origins, but the film is a character study first and foremost. Each passing scene is a nudge toward inevitable villainy, but Arthur is never reduced to a cartoon. The work employs a hammer to showcase mental illness but it is necessary, in a way, because the character is larger than life. His life circumstances, however, are grounded in reality: he does not have a rewarding job, he is not respected by his peers (in fact, he is ridiculed or mocked), he has no friends, he is told he is not funny enough to be a comedian, and even strangers have a tendency to pick on him because he appears to be an easy target. People see him but not in ways he would like to be seen. Maybe that is worse than being invisible.

I felt deep sadness toward this character and Joaquin Phoenix does a superlative job in making us identify the person behind the supervillain name and clown make-up. Even when the camera is showing only his back, we can already feel the weight of Arthur’s depression, his frustration from being rejected again and again, and eventually his rage toward a society in which no one really gives a damn—it is in his posture, the movement of his back muscles, the way he breathes.

When the camera focuses on Arthur’s face, it is like reading an engaging novel. Here is a man craving to find meaning, to be regarded by somebody else as important—or relevant at the very least, to be wanted for his ordinariness, to be enough. It is a consummate performance and it is not just because of Phoenix’ skeletal frame or creepy laugh: Experiencing Arthur’s day-to-day existence is like watching a car wreck in slow motion. At one point we must wonder how much more can a person take. It is the kind of performance you don’t want to blink from because doing so might lead to missing a very telling information. Phoenix does not waste a moment.

It is appropriate that co-writer Phillips and Scott Silver take inspiration from Martin Scorsese’s pictures, “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy.” Images like the subject playing with a gun and aspiring to be shown on television are obvious—and I am not interested in that. I am interested, however, in the mixture of tone and feeling of the two classics, the former a psychological drama with thriller elements and the latter a satirical dark comedy. What results in “Joker” is a morbid sense of humor, an anti-joke, and an effective social commentary about personal and societal responsibility. I wager the work will stand the test of time.

The Family


The Family (2013)
★ / ★★★★

The Manzoni family are now the Blake family as they fall under the witness protection program. Fred (Robert De Niro) has snitched against a fellow Mafia and so he and his family are no longer safe in the U.S. They are assigned to live in a small town in Normandy where not much happens. It should have been easy to assimilate but the ways of the Mafia are ingrained deep in the bones of the Blakes. Though precautions are made, their identities are discovered eventually and a Mafia boss (Stan Carp) sends his henchmen to clean up.

The film works as an action-thriller but it flounders as a comedy. Given that it is supposed to be a hybrid of both, it never reaches a healthy balance so the experience is a great frustration. Coming into the picture, I had no idea that Luc Besson directed—and co-wrote—the material. And yet at the same time I was not surprised. The last twenty-five minutes is the best part of the picture—and majority of it involves building up the tension until the inevitable violence. It shows the efficiency of the Mafia when it comes to achieving a goal, why they are notorious.

It must have occurred to Besson and Michael Caleo that their screenplay is lacking a special spark. It is not at all funny. While the characters are supposed to be bored with their new small-town life, the movie is not supposed to be boring. There is a way of showing the dullness of the every day without necessarily being dull. Each member of the family gets his or her own subplot but all of them have little heft. Their quiet desperation is not communicated in an effective manner.

Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) frequents a church to deal with her guilt. Belle (Dianna Agron) falls in love with her substitute math teacher. Warren (John D’Leo) deals with the politics in his school. Fred wants to write but he is not allowed to write what he knows—Robert (Tommy Lee Jones), a supervisor of the program, makes sure of that. A lot is going on but not one is particularly engaging or compelling. I never once believed that the characters are a real family. Things happen but I found myself not caring.

In fact, I found one of the subplots to be quite cheap. A minor having sexual relations with an adult and we are supposed to buy that at least some aspect of it is romantic? While the subject can be interesting in a different film with much more intelligent or insightful screenplay, it comes off desperate here. It feels like the writers had run out of ideas and so they came up with this schoolgirl crush thing that does not make any sense whatsoever.

Based on a novel by Tonino Benacquista, “The Family” is almost devoid of inspiration. A month from now, perhaps the only moment I will remember from the picture is DeNiro watching Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” because the joke, while obvious, is on point. I certainly wished I was sitting through that movie instead.

The King of Comedy


The King of Comedy (1982)
★★★ / ★★★★

Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) is an unemployed aspiring stand-up comedian with a dream of headlining his own late-night talk show. Rupert is convinced that the way to achieve this goal is to persuade the successful Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) to get him coast-to-coast airtime for ten to fifteen minutes so that the country can discover his talent. But when Jerry avoids Rupert’s requests for appointments one too many times, the latter executes a drastic method to get exactly what he wants.

Written by Paul D. Zimmerman and directed by Martin Scorsese, “The King of Comedy” is sharp when it comes to its critique of celebrity obsession, so uncomfortable to sit through at times that I did not know whether to laugh or groan, and the themes it touches upon have become more relevant over the years especially now that we can follow our favorite celebrities in various social media. De Niro’s performance is one to be remembered.

It requires a bit of practice to be able to tell whether a scene is happening in actuality or only in Rupert’s mind. This is appropriate because we see the story through his eyes and he himself is not even aware between real and fantasy. There are even instances when he is so out of touch with reality, it fails to occur to him that certain courses of action he takes are considered criminal offenses. What matters to him is what he hopes to get out of a situation—to hell with consequences. And that is scary. We laugh at him and yet on some level we feel sorry for him. The screenplay is to be admired because it does not treat its subject like a caricature even though the picture is a satire.

There is one memorable scene right after another. One that stood out to me is the dinner between Rupert and a barkeeper named Rita (Diahnne Abbott). One is caught off-guard and assumes it is going to go smoothly… until Rupert steers the conversation into his dream of achieving fame and pulling out a book filled with his favorite stars’ autographs. While the scene is comedic, there is a sadness to it, too. Observe Abbott’s character very carefully. Rita just wants to have a nice, simple time with a man she sort of likes and yet instead of talking about one another, they are talking about other people. Instead of looking at each other, they are looking at pen marks on a white page.

Later, there is a fantasy wedding scene in which we get a chance to understand Rupert a bit more. There is an apology made about people in Rupert’s life not believing or not regarding him as important. It might explain his abnormal psychology, the irrationality of his fame-driven existence. Maybe being on television is proof that he is important. But then again perhaps it is all biology: brain circuitry gone awry or developmental problems when Rupert was a boy. There is a scene later on where Rupert makes jokes about his alcoholic parents. Perhaps there is truth there somewhere.

If I were to describe “The King of Comedy” in one word, it would be “relentless”—just like the main character. There is one awkward but telling scene right after another. Although Rupert Pupkin is obviously an extreme case of someone obsessed with attaining recognition, one still has to wonder: Why is it that many of us revere people just because they appear on television or the movies? Why are we not a society that shows the same level of enthusiasm for NASA engineers, scientists, mathematicians—those who make extraordinary contributions to society in order to make this world a better place to be in?

Wag the Dog


Wag the Dog (1997)
★★★ / ★★★★

“Wag the Dog,” based loosely on the novel “American Hero” by Larry Beinhart, is supposed to be a satire but it works as a realistic unveiling of the circus that is politics nowadays. It is savagely funny in parts, very curious in others, and, in a few instances, it makes one think deeply about the layers of truth, if any, shown in the media.

Mere eleven days before the election, the president is accused of having sexual relations in the Oval Office with a local Firefly Girl (equivalent to a Girl Scout). Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro), a master spin-doctor, is hired to perform damage control. “Change the story, change the lead,” he claims, and so he decides that in order to distract people from the president’s misconduct, the United States will be involved in a fictitious war with Albania. In order to accomplish such a feat, he requires the help of a Hollywood producer, Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman), to produce highly manipulative clips that are meant to be leaked to various news sources.

The picture moves at a fast pace with rapid-fire dialogue that is both intelligent and entertaining. More impressive is the fact that Hilary Henkin and David Mamet’s screenplay maintains a level of silliness and elegance throughout—a challenging balancing act—in addition to the requirement that just about everything we are seeing and hearing must remain realistic so that the subject being satirized delivers a powerful punch on a consistent basis.

De Niro and Hoffman take the script and sell the tricky lines convincingly. In a way, their two characters must be larger-than-life—because comedies usually require extreme personalities—but at the same time they tend to ground their characters just enough so that we believe it is possible to meet a version of themselves in an airport or in a line at a coffee shop.

Their numerous verbal sparring, even when they are not on the same page one hundred percent, is highly amusing. They have a good sense of timing as well as the instinct to break from the expected beats, especially when delivering long lines of dialogue, to jolt us into paying attention. Not once do we forget that these are seasoned performers, ones who are not afraid to take risks, to do something wrong, or sound wrong. Part of the fun is their willingness to just go for it.

The film, directed by Barry Levinson, offers numerous memorable secondary and tertiary characters, from William H. Macy’s CIA agent who knows the truth about the so-called war, or lack thereof, to Kirsten Dunst as a young actress hired to play an Albanian orphan trying to escape from her war-stricken village… shot in a Hollywood studio. These supporting characters, all funny in their own way, elevate an already high-level, smart, black comedy.

Dirty Grandpa


Dirty Grandpa (2016)
★ / ★★★★

“Dirty Grandpa,” written by John Phillips and directed by Dan Mazer, has a most infantile sense of humor and an emotional intelligence of a plastic bag. Just about everything about it does not work because it has no understanding of what makes real people tick. The so-called jokes rely solely on behavior and so there is no involving story, believable characterization, and genuine humor is created. It exists to annoy and make the audience feel uncomfortable.

It flops right from the very first scene. The setting is a funeral and the source of humor involves our twenty-something protagonist named Jason (Zac Efron) being so into his career as a corporate lawyer that we are supposed to think of him as so uncool, so boring, a square. The problem is, however, the screenplay has not gotten a chance to set up the necessary tone and atmosphere to pull off an attempt at comedy—let alone dark comedy—at this point. Instead, the would-be jokes often come across mean-spirited.

The plot involves Jason being tricked by his grandfather (Robert De Niro) to drive to Florida right after the funeral. The latter’s goal is to get his grandson to loosen up and realize that the girl he is about to marry (Julianne Hough) is very wrong for him. Although the plot is far from groundbreaking, no effort is made so that the grandfather and grandson are able to connect on a genuine level. Instead, we are bombarded with scenes where they curse at each other, get into very awkward and uncomfortable situations (it’s supposed to be funny that Efron’s character appears to be sexually molesting a child at the beach), down to a scene where they share a bed and one of them gets naked. Cue the penis shot.

The Spring Break scenes are rightly over-the-top but completely unnecessary. One might argue that the brainless middle section is very insulting to women, the LGBTQ community, and African-Americans—often simultaneously—and one would be right. I argue that it is even insulting to Spring Breakers because there is no sense of real enjoyment among new and old friends. It is so fake that notice shots where just about everyone at the beach look as though they have perfect bodies. If they did not, Grandpa would make fun of the target for having extra weight. This film is a commercial—which is not necessarily a negative quality, but it is a bad commercial because it fails to appeal to young people of all sizes, color, and creed.

I suppose if the viewer was in it to see Efron’s abs, arms, buttocks, one could recognize a whiff of entertainment. But such rock-hard things can be seen at a local male strip club, so why bother to sit through a picture that offers no value, entertainment, or entertainment value? The filmmakers—and the studios—ought to have asked themselves this question before releasing this embarrassment to the public. I felt awful that Aubrey Plaza, the best comedian in the film, is a part of this humiliation.

The Untouchables


The Untouchables (1987)
★★★ / ★★★★

Special Agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) is assigned to work with cops in Chicago to deal with the flow of illegal liquor and violence during the Prohibition. Everybody knows that Alphonse “Al” Capone (Robert De Niro) is ultimately in charge of importing and distributing alcohol to and around the country, but the police and others in power are either too afraid to stop him or are being paid to keep quiet. Agent Ness, therefore, thinks it is necessary to form his own team (Sean Connery, Charles Martin Smith, Andy Garcia), men of the law with whom he can trust, to bring down the head gangster.

Based on the screenplay by David Mamet and directed by Brian De Palma, “The Untouchables” is a good-looking action-thriller with a number of memorable set pieces that are certain to entertain. What the picture lacks, however, is complexity in terms of characterization. Though the demarcation between the good and the bad guys are well-defined, there is little cross-over in terms of how they think and the decisions they must make to achieve a goal. Thus, when a supposedly dramatic moment in which a character must choose between upholding the law versus personal vengeance, the dramatic gravity appears slight.

More than a few may argue that Costner is robotic in playing the lead—but I disagree. I enjoyed that it is difficult to read him at times, Costner playing Agent Ness almost guarded. After all, he is a stranger in the city and he has been assigned an important task of taking down one of the most visible criminals in the country at the time. I did not see his performance as robotic or wall-like; rather, the character has a lot to accomplish but he does not quite know where to start and so he covers it up by looking composed and professional. He wants to gain the respect of those who doubt what he can do.

De Niro’s performance is good but the character is not well-written. I found this Capone to be cartoonish—with only one really good scene involving a baseball bat. Mamet does not allow the character to do very much other than to look polished and sound sinister every time he must make a speech. The more interesting villain is Frank Nitti (chillingly played by Billy Drago), one of the henchmen who we cannot wait to get his comeuppance.

The action scenes make an imprint because they unfold like a thriller. Particular standouts include the station and the baby stroller, a rooftop chase, the raid at the border between the U.S. and Canada. De Palma employs uncomfortable pauses during critical moments. Just when we are ready to take the punch, he delays just a bit to catch us slightly off-guard. He does this time and again but it does not get old because there is almost always a bit of variation to keep the approach fresh.

The clothes, the sets, the hairstyles, and other elements designed to summon the 1930s are carefully picked out. Though they are easy on the eyes, they are never distracting. Couple the images of the past with a modern action-thriller score, one creates an interesting dichotomy. Although some may disapprove of the background music, I found it fitting considering the off-beat use of camera angles and pacing of action scenes.

“The Untouchables” would have been a more complete experience if we had gotten to know Agent Ness’ partners beyond what they can do superficially or their expertise. They are, however, given some memorable lines, particularly of Connery’s character giving advice to the federal agent in terms of what he should be willing to do or cross to capture the seemingly untouchable Al Capone.

Silver Linings Playbook


Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Pat (Bradley Cooper), diagnosed with bipolar disorder accompanied by severe mood swings, has been institutionalized for eight months by the order of the court. His mother (Jacki Weaver) picks him up from the hospital and takes him home so that he can try to get into the groove of living his life again. But Pat is on a mission. He believes that if he works hard enough to get in shape, learns to be more knowledgeable about classic literature, and puts his life back together, his wife, whom he caught sexually involved with a much older man, would want him back. Meanwhile, everybody knows that the restraining order is there for a reason but no one dares to break him out of wishful thinking.

Dozens of movies about a man and a woman meeting and getting together romantically released throughout the course of a year consistently prove that romantic comedy is a tough sub-genre to get right, but “Silver Linings Playbook,” based on the novel by Matthew Quick, is a shining and welcome exception. Consistently going for the big laughs and the picture might be criticized for not having enough heart, unrealistic because life is not as simple as a series of sketches. Too much sad moments and the film might be denounced for being too dark and depressing, not at all fit for couples and hopeless romantics who wish to validate their beliefs.

Perhaps one of the toughest challenges the film faces is the question of when–or if–it is okay to laugh at a character with a mood disorder. I admired that the writing is very discerning between the man and his ailment even though at times it is very difficult to separate them. I liked that, in a way, it asks us what we consider to be politically correct. When some of Pat’s unstable behavior is played for laughs, it is never mean-spirited. There is always an ironic twist, a parallel joke, or insight that accompanies what some people may easily dismiss as offensive. For instance, Pat wearing a trash bag every time he goes running around the neighborhood may be considered as a behavior by “a crazy person.” Yes, it’s amusing that someone from a middle-class family would willingly wear trash bag in public. But the way we may choose to see it is it might be our protagonist’s way of acknowledging that it was wrong of him to almost beat a man to death after he has caught his wife having an affair. Trash is what is considered to be an unwanted thing. Deep down, knows he is unwanted by the community and he wishes to do better, despite his stubborn personality, and so we want to be on his side.

Embers of romance smolder when Pat and Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) meet over dinner hosted by Pat’s friend (John Ortiz) and Tiffany’s sister (Julia Stiles). With the help of a sharp script that allows Pat and Tiffany to say what is on their minds without filters, Cooper and Lawrence imbue their characters with a fresh vitality through their eyes. Even though they are, in a lot of ways, unhappy and damaged people, we want them to get to know each other and perhaps become a couple. Each time they interact, we can feel that they were once happy and are still willing to reach a new version of what they think makes up happiness. The screenplay amps up the ante by forcing Pat and Tiffany to be a part of a mostly one-sided, unglamorous romance. We may not have a bipolar disorder or depression but they remain relatable because we grow to understand their personalities and the way they think.

“Silver Linings Playbook,” based on the screenplay and directed by David O. Russell, is about people who need emotional healing with plenty of unexpected humor along the way. It is an atypical romantic comedy due to its reliance on utilizing silence, especially to build drama between father (Robert De Niro) who thinks he has not given enough to his younger son, to go for the big emotions that feel genuine thereby taking away elements that might be perceived as manipulative. Why use music to give us a hint on what to think or how to feel when we have the brains (and hopefully the empathy) to read between what is communicated and the unsaid? The music, however, is required for the dance competition. It is executed with such joy and creativity that if it fails to make you smile, you just might be taking life a bit too seriously.