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Goodfellas (#110 of 15)

Review: Glenn Kenny’s Robert De Niro: Anatomy of an Actor

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Review: Glenn Kenny’s Robert De Niro: Anatomy of an Actor
Review: Glenn Kenny’s Robert De Niro: Anatomy of an Actor

Art-making is too often discussed in terms that implicitly liken it to magic, thusly neglecting the truth that it involves work that resembles the day-by-day toils of many other ostensibly plainer occupations. With Robert De Niro: Anatomy of an Actor, film critic Glenn Kenny quietly pushes against that mythology. A compassionate, pragmatic anti-sentimentality, or an attempt at one, serves as the through line for his examination of one the most mythologized of all screen actors. In his introduction, Kenny writes of “De Niro’s reluctance to do interviews, and his seeming stumbling while doing them, his famous taciturnity in contrast to his preternaturally vivid presence on screen, created a mythology that itself spawned a counter-mythology. It made De Niro as famous for being an enigma, a code that a journalist or critic with just the right amount of persistence and perspicacity could crack. But what if the answer is right in front of our faces, and always has been?” The author follows that with a quote in which director Elia Kazan (who worked with De Niro on The Last Tycoon) claims that the actor is among the hardest working that he’s collaborated with, and the only one who asked to rehearse on Sundays.

In other words, Kenny brings De Niro down to earth as a working artist, which serves to somewhat ironically reawaken your awe for the actor and the profound emotional nakedness that he once achieved reliably in one performance after another. Reading this, one wonders, not why De Niro drifted toward less immersive a-job’s-a-job roles, but how he plumbed himself as deeply as long as he did. The author emphasizes detail, connecting physical gestures from one role, sometimes mercilessly, to their repetition in another film (such as the reappearance of a “shoo” motion from Goodfellas in Awakenings.) He paints De Niro unsurprisingly as a master craftsman who’s intensely devoted to analysis and rehearsal, which he, somewhat, ineffably fuses with his personality and his soul. (I’m indulging my own mythology.) Following the familiar Cahiers du Cinéma “Anatomy of an Actor” template, Kenny discusses 10 “iconic roles” in De Niro’s canon that serve to shape the actor’s career as he evolved from galvanic acting titan to controversial “sell-out” to an inevitably mellower character actor who’s still capable, nevertheless, of imbuing a questionable project or under-respected performer with a bit of prestige by association.

Sinful Cinema 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag

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Sinful Cinema: 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag
Sinful Cinema: 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag

You can count Joe Pesci’s star vehicles on one hand, and people will tell you My Cousin Vinny is the only worthwhile title. Don’t believe it. Just when his post-Goodfellas bankability was starting to wane, and the Lethal Weapon and Home Alone franchises had lost their nineties-defining luster, Pesci landed the lead in 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag, the most high-concept action-comedy this side of Snakes on a Plane. Written and directed by Tom Schulman, who won an Oscar for his snuggly script for Dead Poets Society, and otherwise penned a lot of family-friendly stuff like Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, this is the work of a debut director itching to access his inner mafioso, but perhaps not quite knowing how. Where to start? Well, with a mob hit, of course—err, make that eight mob hits. Tommy (Pesci) is an old-school gangster hired by Benny (Joe Basile) and Rico (Anthony Mangano) to deliver the titular parcel to a boss named Big Sep (Howard George), who’d better get his heads within 24 hours or “more are gonna roll, capiche?” Tommy flies commercial air with his bag full of noggins, getting past security by slipping a handgun into an innocent woman’s pocket, then nudging his luggage across the floor amid the metal-detector diversion (ahh, 1997). He then takes a seat beside Charlie (Andy Corneau), your typical square who happens to have Tommy’s very same bag. Needless to say, when Tommy is forced to check his duffel due to its massive size (and the ironic fact that a medic needs to store live human organs in his overhead compartment), the wiseguy and the wimp eventually end up with each other’s goods, making things extra awkward for Charlie when he goes to meet girlfriend Laurie’s (Kristy Swanson) parents.

If I Had a Sight & Sound Ballot Tim Peters’s Top 10 Films of All Time

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If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Tim Peters’s Top 10 Films of All Time
If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Tim Peters’s Top 10 Films of All Time

In the interest of iconoclasm, and of pointing one’s critical finger at great movies that were created, you know, sometime after the 1970s, what follows is an alphabetically-arranged list of what this reviewer thinks are world-historically worthwhile films produced after 1986, the year of his birth. The standards of judgment that these movies were able to so spectacularly and consistently surpass are the standards of a person who is, well, in his mid-20s, and who is agitated and restless and frequently lonesome. Those standards involve, more cinematically-speaking, the intensity of the movie; the intelligence of the movie; its willingness to admit that life is often disappointing, drab, and deceptive; and a preference for protagonists who are struggling to resist the rather deadening expectations of the society in which they’ve found themselves living. Given the quantity of critical cinematic verbiage that’s emanated forth on the Internet prior to, and in the wake of, the release of the 2012 Sight & Sound Top 10 list, this reviewer will say no more, but merely and humbly direct your attention to the list he’s provided.

If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot Edward Copeland’s Top 10 Films of All Time

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If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Edward Copeland’s Top 10 Films of All Time
If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Edward Copeland’s Top 10 Films of All Time

Eons ago, while still in high school, I composed a list of my all-time favorite films for the first time. The inspiration to undertake such an endeavor was prompted by the 1982 Sight & Sound poll that Roger Ebert wrote about in a mid-’80s edition of his Movie Home Companion (the 1982 Sight & Sound list can be found here). I haven’t followed Sight & Sound’s pattern and revised my own list every 10 years, but I did institute a personal rule that I’ve always adhered to since that initial teenage list: A film has to be at least 10 years old to be eligible for inclusion. Too often, people get swept up in ecstasy over a film they’ve seen for the first time and can’t fight the tendency to overrate it. Then, years later, they see that film again and wonder what the hell they were thinking. That’s why I think all films need time to age, like a fine bottle of wine, to test their taste over time. As for the distinction between “best” and “favorite,” as far I’m concerned, it’s a pointless one. Each submitted list represents someone’s subjective opinion. I hardly can claim my 10 films represent the “best” movies ever made as no one appointed me the arbiter to rule on such absolutes where none can exist.

If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot Elise Nakhnikian’s Top 10 Films of All Time

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If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Elise Nakhnikian’s Top 10 Films of All Time
If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Elise Nakhnikian’s Top 10 Films of All Time

Maybe it’s just coincidence, but the most creative periods for the movies seem to occur about every 30 years, usually triggered by the advent of some new technology. First came that short burst of experimentation by people like Georges Méliès during the last few years of the 19th century, right after the medium was invented. The latest is the digital revolution that started around the turn of this century, making it possible for almost anyone to make a movie (and enabling a whole new level of intimacy between filmmaker and subject) by eliminating the need for expensive film processing and slashing the cost and size of professional-quality cameras. But my favorite golden age is the one that stretched from the late ’20s to the early ’40s in Hollywood. Old pros who’d cut their teeth on countless shorts showed us what could be done with silent film while upstarts like Howard Hawks and the Marx Brothers played with synchronous sound, that shiny new toy, in movies crammed to the brim with fast, funny talk. That probably explains why half of my 10 favorites were made during a 14-year period that ended as WWII began.

Oscar 2012 Winner Predictions: Picture

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Oscar 2012 Winner Predictions: Picture
Oscar 2012 Winner Predictions: Picture

That the Best Picture category’s “Will it be six or will it be seven?” question was settled as close to 10 as possible without actually being 10 isn’t merely a mark of how much of a mess this year’s Oscars are. It’s also proof positive that, despite paying lip service to the hundreds of films “eligible” to be nominated for Best Picture, by the time publicists and studios have had their say, there are never more than maybe two dozen movies in the mix. If nine movies in this hardly vintage year could reach the minimum requirement of being listed first on five percent of all ballots, then frankly the bar isn’t high enough. Even if the board of directors fixes what they’ve broken and revert next year to the five-deep slate, no matter how heartening it is for fans of The Tree of Life (which exists in an entirely different league from the rest of the other nominees) or Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (ditto), it can’t seem like much of an honor to be nominated now that the category’s perverse sliding scale has revealed just how limited Oscar voters obviously see their pool of choices.

Let’s Do the Time Warp Again Mafia II

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Let’s Do the Time Warp Again: Mafia II
Let’s Do the Time Warp Again: Mafia II

Avoiding speeding tickets is one of many things I don’t want to do in a video game. Yet 2K Games apparently thought I’d feel differently when designing Mafia II, since going over the speed limit in the presence of police officers (40mph on regular roads, 60mph on bridges and highways) will immediately lead to hot pursuit and, if you’re feeling too lazy to ditch the cops, a $50 fine. Since this sequel to 2002’s third-person PC sandbox title is a brazen rip-off of Grand Theft Auto in virtually every respect, this driving-related statute is the height of absurdity, forcing one to either leisurely navigate the NYC-ish Empire Bay—an immense annoyance, given how many missions require lengthy car rides—or to constantly risk courting law enforcement’s ire and a potential chase through crowded city streets. Admittedly, in the grand scheme of things, this one issue is reasonably minor, and is at least mitigated by the fact that one can enable a speed-limit device that prevents your car from exceeding the posted limit (plus, you can still run red lights). Yet it’s nonetheless indicative of this polished but wholly uninspired follow-up, which finds only ridiculous and/or meaningless ways to tweak its borrowed Grand Theft Auto template.