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Once Upon a Time in America – Review

8 Feb

Sergio Leone is best known for helming the epic spaghetti western trilogy that features A Fistful of DollarsFor a Few Dollars More, and perhaps his most famous film, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. His final feature film, however, was something very different from his previous works. In 1984, Leone released Once Upon a Time in America, a film that has become a sprawling gangster epic. When it was first released, its run time was cut down to two hours and twenty minutes and the chronology of the movie was changed to make it happen in chronological order, while the original length was more like 4 hours with a story told through flashbacks. The shorter version is the one people would much rather forget, so today I’m going to be looking at the longest cut, which runs over four hours, set in the proper order, and features scenes not shown in previous American releases.

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After living a life of crime and excitement, small time New York gangster Noodles (Robert De Niro) is forced to leave the city and go into hiding for over thirty years. After all this time away, he is mysteriously called back to New York City by an unknown part for an unknown reason that involves a bag full of money that was stashed in a locker at a train station when Noodles and his friends were kids and just getting started in their life of crime. Upon his return, he is overwhelmed with memories of meeting his best friend and partner, Max (James Woods), a friendship that over the years got more and more strained as motivations and relationships stood in the way of their goals. As Noodles starts piecing together the mystery of who summoned him, he also takes the time to reflect on the decisions and the action that got him to the lonely place he finds himself in the later years of his life.

One of the most important thing about any movie is the characters that are created for the audience to relate to or understand or anything like that. To me, some of the most memorable characters come from gangster movies because I really enjoy the depth of the best gangster characters, but I also see the more revolting sides of the personality as something that truly gives their characters weight. That how most of the characters in Once Upon a Time in America are created. Noodles and Max are two sides of the same coin and create a relationship dynamic that is typical for this genre but feels different and, because of the film’s run time, explored in a much finer way. Even the side characters in the film have unique character traits that make them memorable, and never does the large cast ever seem to blend together in any way. De Niro and James Woods are both excellent in their roles, and I also have to give props to Elizabeth McGovern for her role as Deborah, a character with one of the most unsettling stories of all the characters in the film.

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While crime and typical gangster themes are explored in this movie, the themes explored in Once Upon a Time in America feel grander in scale than most movies in this genre. Part of the reason these themes resonate so well is the fact that the story is told through flashbacks and not in chronological order. When Noodles returns to New York City, there’s this noticeable level of sadness and disconnect that he feels towards everything. When the story goes back in time to the 1930s, we see why these feelings exist. This creates themes of loneliness, friendship, loss, and the strongest of all those explored, regret. To me, that’s what stuck with me the most is the regret that Noodles feels towards his life and his choices. This makes every death or separation feel all the more powerful.

I can’t talk about a Sergio Leone movie without talking about his artistry behind the camera. Like all of his other films that I’ve seen, Once Upon a Time in America is a gorgeous cinematic experience. The sets that are built combined with his wide angle style of shooting makes this epic film seem grander than most. The color pallet is also something to notice with the past having a much warmer pallet as compared to the present time where the world is covered with neon lights and blues and grays. His collaboration with cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli, who worked with him on his previous two films, also adds a lot with his camera work and lighting. Finally, I have to mention Ennio Morricone’s beautifully realized score that turns the emotions, loves, and losses of the characters into incredible music. It’s a solid reminder of why he’s my favorite film composer.

Once Upon a Time in America is both a technical achievement while also acting as a haunting tale of impulsion and consequences. This is the kind of movie that can serve as a reminder to any cinephile as to why they love movies and the process behind their creations. Sergio Leone is truly a master of his craft, and everyone involved successfully created one of the most memorable gangster films ever made. Just make sure you stray away from the heavily cut American release and find the longer versions to truly get the full impact of the story. It’s not one to be missed.

Final Grade: A+

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The Untouchables – Review

5 Oct

The 1930s was an interesting time in American history. The Great Depression hit in 1929 which forced many people to make money to provide for themselves by any means necessary. Since this was happening during the time of Prohibition, a lot of these people used the demand of alcohol to their advantage. One of the biggest names was Al Capone, who built an entire empire and was one of the forerunners of organized crime in the United States. This leads me into Brian De Palma’s 1987 film The Untouchables, based on a book of the same name and a television show from the 1950s. With source material like this, it’s no surprise that this film has become one of the most respected gangster movies of all time and, I think, Brian De Palma’s best film.

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In the early 1930s, Al Capone (Robert De Niro) practically runs the city of Chicago and makes millions of dollars through the illegal distribution of alcohol. He’s also a dangerous and violent criminal who uses intimidation and murder to force people into doing business with him. This causes the Bureau of Prohibition to create a task force just to bring him down and choose Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) to be the head of this group. Ness finds working with a whole task force to be dangerous and nearly impossible, so he makes up a team all his own. They are beat cop Malone (Sean Connery), new recruit George Stone (Andy Garcia), and accountant Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith). The group is soon nicknamed “The Untouchables,” but they soon realize that’s not true as the pressure they put on Capone force him to put the pressure back on them.

I hate it when critics use the word “captivating” to describe a movie. It’s such a cheesy adjective and I simply don’t like it, but allow me to be a hypocrite just this once. The Untouchables is a captivating movie. Everything just comes together so well to make a movie that reminds me why I love movies so much in the first place. Normally I hate when a movie is based off true events and is completely inaccurate, but David Mamet’s screenplay makes me forget all that and just enjoy the story that he put together. With Mamet’s screenplay, Brian De Palma’s expert hand at directing, the cast, and Ennio Morricone’s note perfect and unique score, The Untouchables was practically sculpted by the gods.

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There’s a lot of great actors attached to this movie like Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, Robert De Niro, and Andy Garcia. While everyone does a fine job, there are a few stand out performances that exceed great and wind up in the territory of excellence. These exceptions are Sean Connery and Robert De Niro. Now, De Niro isn’t really surprising, but I never really looked at Connery as a great actor. He can act fine, but his performance in The Untouchables is the highlight of his talent. He brings humor and the right amount of sincerity and drama to the role of Malone, which makes this movie worth watching just to see him act. D Niro, on the other hand, while not being in the movie all that much, makes every scene that he’s in memorable. He plays Al Capone with viciousness, slime, and makes him a very entertaining person to watch.

Like I said before, this movie is pretty far from being accurate. For example, Eliot Ness and Al Capone never actually met face to face during the whole ordeal, and Capone never actually violently attacked back. Also, Frank Nitti wasn’t involved in things like he was in this movie. But, this movie presents a stylized version of reality that makes it so hard to look away. Brian De Palma is known for making highly stylized, but not over the top films. There are scenes in this movie that will be remembered until the day I die, like the shootout on the bridge and the slow motion gunfight in the train station. These scenes combined with Morricone’s score just get to me in ways that movies should.

Brian De Palma’s filmography has had some rough patches, but also some that define film making perfectly. I love Scarface just as much as the next guy, but when it comes to mob movies that De Palma has done, my favorite has to be The Untouchables. It tells a story so perfectly with characters and their arcs so defined, that it’s easy to care about what happens to all of them. It also is reality through a stylish looking glass that shows a world like our own, but somehow just a little different. That’s the magic of the movies, and that’s why this film is a must see.

Mean Streets – Review

24 Mar

I’m about to bust a myth for you right now. Martin Scorsese actually hasn’t been around since the beginning of time, weaving stories that are being passed down from generation to generation. I remember hearing in school that his 1973 film Mean Streets was his debut, but Scorsese actually had two other movies already made: Who’s That Knocking at My Door? from 1967 and Boxcar Bertha from 1972. Many people do say, however, that Mean Streets was Martin Scorsese’s first important film and the movie that put him, Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel on the map.

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Charlie (Harvey Keitel) is a small time New York gangster moving up the ranks of the local Italian Mafia in Little Italy. He’s a tough, but fair kind of person with a soul that’s aflame with personal guilt that his Catholic beliefs can’t extinguish. Instead, Charlie looks to the streets for some kind of penance and finds it in his childhood friend Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), who is throwing his life away with his devil may care attitude and outrageous gambling debts. Meanwhile, Charlie is also trying to maintain a relationship with Johnny Boy’s cousin, Teresa (Amy Robinson), and working to run his own restaurant. Charlie soon begins to realize that what he truly wants may be an impossible dream as an aggravated loan shark, Michael (Richard Romanus), gets increasingly violent towards Johnny Boy, and eventually threatening his life.

So not only is Mean Streets Scorsese’s first important film, it’s also one that feels extremely close and personal to the film maker, as it should considering it’s a semi-autobiographical story of Scorsese growing up in Little Italy. Still, this kind of closeness with his films can be seen in a lot of his other work with Hugo coming to mind as an excellent example. While this isn’t as violent or graphic as his later work, it’s one that seems to be paving the way for films like Casino and Goodfellas amongst others. This is still a much smaller movie that takes a lot of inspiration from the New Wave movements going on in Europe and Japan but combining them with the kind of gangster story that Scorsese tells so well.

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One of the most fun parts of watching this movie is seeing a really young Harvey Keitel and a really young Robert De Niro, who of course went on to be a regular in Martin Scorsese’s movies. Before there was Taxi DriverRaging Bull, or Cape Fear there was Mean Streets. Keitel actually worked with Scorsese before on Who’s That Knocking at My Door?, but this was his star making performance, and the same can be said about De Niro. Their performances in this movie are just as great as you would expect and then some. Some of the scenes with the two actors sharing some personal dialogue were actually improvised, which makes their performances all the more impressive. Even if you don’t like crime or gangster movies, the acting alone is enough to see the movie.

So while this movie is fantastic, it may not really be for everyone. The movie’s plot is kind of weird because for a while it doesn’t seem to really be going anywhere. Like many movies inspired by and included in the New Wave movement in other countries, movies focused on characters moving from place to place, going about their business, and interactions with other people. That’s the fuel for the story rather than situations pushing the movie forward. That’s how Mean Streets is. It’s all about interactions with other people and being immersed in the urban environment. It’s a different way to tell a story, but it’s the only way that this story could be told.

Mean Streets pretty much set the tone for the urban crime films that Scorsese made throughout the 80’s and 90’s that are now considered classics. It also marks the start of his career as a respected film maker, but also the starts of Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro. It’s clear in some moments that Scorsese was still experimenting with some things that don’t always translate too well, but as a whole this is a small personal masterpiece of his. It isn’t his best film, but it stands up very well to his best films and that in and of itself makes it worth multiple viewings.

Casino – Review

30 Jan

Martin Scorsese is the king of crime films. There have been others who made excellent contributions to the genre like Michael Mann, Brian DePalma, and Francis Ford Coppola, but Scorsese is the master. With films like Goodfellas and Mean Streets, it’s quite clear he knows how to craft this kind of film. Unfortunately for Casino, it is normally compared to and overshadowed by Goodfellas. I’m not going to compare the two, but speak about Casino on its own.

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Sam Rothstein (Robert de Niro) is a sports handicapper for the mafia who is chosen by the bosses to run the Tangiers casino in Las Vegas. Everything appears to be going smoothly with both business and his personal like, especially after meeting a hustler named Ginger (Sharon Stone), but then his friend from back home comes to town. This friend is Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci), an enforcer with a hot temper and dangerously violent outbursts. Nicky is soon banned from all of the casinos and goes into business for himself. What follows are the next decade of these three characters’ lives and how they go from the height of power and respect to sinking below where they ever were.

Casino is one of the most interesting films that I have ever seen, being in love with the whole Las Vegas scene. It’s great watching Ocean’s 11, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Smokin’ Aces, but I never felt I got as much of an inside look as I did with Casino. There are times where I really felt like I was getting behind the scenes access, especially when they take the viewer to the back room in one awesome continuous take. Another excellent scene is when the camera jumps back and forth between the different casino floor workers and showing who was watching who. It makes me fully begin to comprehend all the work that goes into providing tourists with their dangerous vices.

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I’d like to dedicate an entire paragraph solely to Sharon Stone, but I’ll try to be fair to the other actors. De Niro and Pesci were great, especially Pesci’s fast talking smart ass persona that everyone loves so much. He does some pretty terrible things to people in this movie, but strangely enough we are laughing right along with him through most of the ordeals. Maybe not during the “head in the vise” bit, but most times I found myself laughing. Sharon Stone, though. This is the performance of her career. Forget Basic Instinct. Her portrayal of a coked up  hustler sleaze bag is absolutely incredible. She had to convince Scorsese she was right for the role, and thank goodness she did because her acting is impeccable. There was one point in the movie where I thought to myself, “This is one of the best performances I’ve ever seen.” I stand by that. I hated the character as a person, but loved Stone’s acting.

Scorsese was greatly inspired by classic film noir, like the under rated crime gem Force of Evil. Despite the bright colors of Vegas, this film is indeed a noir film, just a different sort of one. Casino is what you would call a “soleil noir”, which means it’s a bright noir as opposed to the high contrast shadowing of traditional noirs. All the pieces are in place for the genre. There’s a tragically flawed “hero”, a femme fatale, crime and mystery, and an interesting use of classic narration techniques. That’s one of the coolest parts of this film, the way Scorsese has the narration affected by what’s happening in the film. In one particular part, Pesci is narrating and in the actual scene he gets punched. When he gets punched, the narration abruptly cuts off. It’s awesome.

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I feel like you shouldn’t compare Goodfellas to Casino, but it’s pretty hard not to. Both movies deal with the same sort of criminals getting into shady dealings that normally end in violence, but it’s pretty fair to say Goodfellas is Scorsese’s masterpiece. That being said, Casino is a fantastic crime epic that goes a lot further, both in content and execution, then a lot of other crime films. It’s deep story about friendship, betrayal, and the dangers of power, themes Scorsese has explored fully before. The movie may not break new ground thematically, but it is a great gangster  flick that is well worth three hours of your time.

Cape Fear – Review

28 Dec

For a horror movie to really be successful, it’s important that it preys on very basic and human fears. What both the original 1962 version of Cape Fear and Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake exploits the fear of the intrusion of our personal spaces and the disruption of our lives. In this review, I’ll be talking about Martin Scorsese’s version, because this is the one I’ve actually seen. Traditionally, I can’t review a movie if I haven’t seen it, you know? So here we go.

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Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) is a lawyer who appears to have a great life. His family has a nice standing in the town of New Essex, and the only real problem is their teenage daughter, Danielle (Juliette Lewis) going to summer school. The carpet is quickly pulled out from under them when a convict of 14 years Max Cady (Robert De Niro) gets released. Cady and Bowden of a past that doesn’t add up just right and cost Cady 14 years of his life. Now that he’s freed, he vows to have his biblical revenge on Bowden and teach him all about loss.

The terrifying thing about this movie is that it isn’t something that just happens in the movies. People’s lives get invaded, uprooted, and otherwise ruined more often than one might think and the way Scorsese plays it in Cape Fear isn’t hard to believe. The incidences with Cady start out small and act as more of an annoyance for Bowden, but as the plot slowly moves along, Cady begins moving deeper and deeper into the minds of the Bowden family until he finally reaches their breaking point.

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Robert De Niro absolutely kills it in this movie and is definitely one of his best performances along with his role in Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, both Scorsese films strangely enough. It’s easy to become immediately repulsed by his character right when you first see him in the first scene of the movie. There’s automatically something that you just hate about him that progresses throughout the movie. The other scene stealer is Juliette Lewis as the young teenager whose mind is a blank page for Cady to scribble his psychopathic mumbo jumbo. She’s innocent and relatable for everyone whose ever been a teenager. You want to jump into the scene and save her from his madness, but you have to keep telling yourself that it’s just a movie.

One thing that kind of grinded my gears was the overuse of blue screen. There’s scenes with these really over dramatic clouds and stormy weather if something foreboding or sinister is happening in the Bowden household. Having that happen once is passable on the grounds of dramatic emphasis, but more than once just takes away the realism that this movie tries so hard to establish.

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I will say that I love the helplessness that you’re bound to feel while watching this movie as a result of the helplessness of the main characters. Nolte’s character really tries to get help from the legal system, but Cady is able to find loop holes in every instance. I’m not saying that Scorsese was trying to condemn the entire legal system, but he does succeed at pointing out the problems and inconsistencies that make it very easy for intelligent and scheming people to exploit to push the law to their favor.

This was a genuinely scary and suspenseful film because of its true to life nature and the brilliant performances by Robert De Niro and Juliette Lewis. The exploration of the legal system also adds depth without really straying away from the main story. This certainly is Scorsese’s best work, and I’m not sure of anyone who would rate it higher than Goodfellas or Raging Bull, but it’s still a great piece of film making, albeit a little over the top at points, that does its job to its fullest and then some.

The Good Shepherd – Review

13 Dec

There’s been a lot of movies about the CIA and spies, but I don’t think I’ve ever watched one quite like The Good Shepherd. It’s more than just a cloak and dagger spy film. It’s also a story about relationships that should not exist, paranoia, and missed opportunities. It’s also almost three hours long. To some, this length will be a positive, to others it will be a major hindrance.

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In the early days of the CIA, Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) devotes his life to the agency and constantly surrounds himself with a collage of friends and enemies. The twist is that he doesn’t know who are his friends and who are his enemies. While he covertly fights for America, his home life becomes a nuisance, constantly interfering with his work. With the Bay of Pigs Invasion proving to be a failure, Wilson begins to question his position in life and whether or not he chose the right path.

Throughout the entirety of The Good Shepherd, the viewer sits through all sorts of historical events. There’s the Blitz of World War II and growing conflict with Russia, all the way up to the Bay of Pigs. Needless to say, a lot happens. In a way, this could make the plot unbelievably confusing, as is the case with a lot of films like this. What makes the story easy to get a grasp on is the fact that all of the espionage isn’t really the focal point of the story. Sure, it’s an important part but what is the crucial plot point is the stability of the characters. This could be through relationship, physical, or mental.

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There are so many great performers giving excellent performances. Matt Damon is the star of the show, and makes it really easy for the viewer to both dislike but also sympathize with his character. Angelina Jolie gives a strong performance, and speaking of strong performances, John Turturro gives an outstanding performance even though he doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time. Other stars include Alec Baldwin, John Hurt, Robert De Niro (who also directs), and Billy Crudup. The aforementioned actors have the least amount of screen time, although they make the most of the their roles.

Now, as I said before, this is a very long movie clocking in at two hours and forty five minutes. Personally, I love long movies because I feel like it’s a grand story with a lot to say. That being said, this definitely could have been trimmed down, at least a little bit. Or, even better, it could have made a great miniseries. That’s really what this movie felt like: and HBO miniseries. There’s so much that happens throughout the years of this movie that go by so quickly because of time. It also has moments where the plot slows down and it gets really boring, which just reaffirms the fact that The Good Shepherd would have been a better miniseries.

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I’d like to briefly touch on how amazing the movie looks. The costumes and the sets all look fantastic and very believable. Selling a movie like this would be very difficult unless everything is spot on. Styles and technology changes, and we all get to see that happen as the movie progresses. It’s very interesting and done very well.

I read a review that said said something along the lines of: “It is easier to respect that like The Good Shepherd.” I can see how some critics and viewers could see that, and I couldn’t really argue with that. My opinion is that this is one of the best spy films I have ever seen. It’s not particularly violent and there isn’t too much suspense, but I will say that it is very real, and that’s why I liked it so much. Sure, it can be dry and it is very long, but it’s expertly crafted and surprisingly easy to follow. If you have a free afternoon, you may want to check out The Good Shepherd.

Limitless – Review

1 Sep

We all wish that we could be better versions of ourselves, no matter how much you are happy with your place in society. Who wouldn’t want to be the perfect person? Well, in the film, Limitless, that gets to happen to someone, and even though it appears to be great there are terrible consequences. This is a very well made movie that is a lot deeper than I anticipated.

 

Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is a writer who is struggling with even getting the first word written for his new book. His life seems to be in the ultimate rut when his girlfriend, Lindy (Abbie Cornish), walks out on him. A strange meeting with someone from his past changes his life forever when he is offered a pill called NZT-48 that will allow him to access 100% off his brain. Using this pill, he not only finishes his book, but also learns how to beat the stock market and is soon hired by Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro), who soon begins to suspect that Morra isn’t quite what he appears to be.

Let me just begin with saying that this movie was technically a masterpiece. The dizzying effect when Morra is way too deep in the grasp of the drug is something I’ve never seen anything like before. It reminded me of the dolly zoom that was first seen in Vertigo, but on a much larger scale. The color correction, gelling, and light work that is used to show when Morra is on the drug and off is perfect. When he has his brain working at full potential, everything is bright as opposed to the normal cold blue and gray look.

 

The whole idea of this is just really cool, if not scientifically inaccurate. It’s true that the hypothesis that only 20% of your brain is used has been debunked, but don’t let that stop you from enjoying Limitless. Think of it as a pill that unlocks your true potential and your subconscious thoughts, which in turn unlocks your smallest memories that have been stored in the deepest recesses of your mind. Who wouldn’t want to try that? It sounds like the greatest thing since sliced bread. How would you use it, though?

I enjoyed seeing how Eddie Morra flaunt his newfound intelligence and make enemies. I feel like this is a message the movie is trying to express. Although you may have a vast amount of knowledge, being braggadocios and obnoxious will only hurt you. I did want to see Morra succeed in the end, but it was still difficult to like him at times.This feeling of dislike made his character more real and deep.

 

While Requiem for a Dream scares the audience away from drugs, Limitless more of a warning then a condemnation. By the end of the movie, the viewer understands the danger of the drug, and how to relate it to daily life. What I’m trying to say is the movie warns more against the dangers of over usage and abuse in a very interesting and original way.

Limitless is a fantastic movie that is artistic, intelligent, inaccurate, but fun. There’s a lot of unexpected intrigue and murder concerning the business aspect of the movie and the drug abuse aspect. The greatest victory of this movie is its ability to make the audience feel like what Morra might feel. This is not a film you want to miss.