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Robert De Niro (#110 of 24)

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.

Summer of ‘88: Midnight Run—Bob the Bounty Hunter

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Summer of ‘88: <em>Midnight Run</em>—Bob the Bounty Hunter
Summer of ‘88: <em>Midnight Run</em>—Bob the Bounty Hunter

My mother hates Charles Grodin, and not for something he did in real life. Mom has an affliction I affectionately call Actor-Role Association Syndrome (ARAS). Symptoms include an intense, unforgiving dislike for an actor based on a role he or she has played. The afflicted will see nothing that the actor is affiliated with. Folks on Mom’s shit list include Carroll O’Connor (because of his Archie Bunker), Lou Gossett Jr. (because of An Officer and a Gentleman), and Ben Vereen (because of that unfortunate Bert Williams tribute he did in blackface). In Grodin’s case, it was his obstetrician character from Rosemary’s Baby who turned Mia Farrow over to the devil worshippers. Because he did, Mom wouldn’t hose down Grodin if he burst into flames on her patio. She’d probably squirt lighter fluid on him.

I bring this up because the last movie I saw in theaters with my mother was the 1988 Robert De Niro-Charles Grodin action comedy Midnight Run. This movie choice was her idea, which surprised me until I realized she probably hoped De Niro would shoot Grodin. Said shooting seemed plausible at first, as there’s no love lost between bounty hunter Jack Walsh (De Niro) and his criminal prey, Jonathan “The Duke” Mardukas (Grodin). Mardukas jumped bail to the tune of $450,000, a paltry sum for a man who stole $15 million. Walsh sees the Duke as the $100,000 payday promised him by bail bondsman Eddie Moscone (Joe Pantoliano). The Duke sees Walsh as a roadblock to freedom, though considering who else is after him, he’d be wise to stay handcuffed to the bounty hunter.

Trailer and Poster Drop for Scorsese-Backed Luc Besson Flick The Family

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Trailer and Poster Drop for Scorsese-Backed Luc Besson Flick <em>The Family</em>
Trailer and Poster Drop for Scorsese-Backed Luc Besson Flick <em>The Family</em>

In case you were wondering what the movie version of The Sopranos might have looked like, director Luc Besson and producer Martin Scorsese are giving you a taste with The Family, a film that seems to follow the HBO drama’s lead, albeit with a madcap comedic spin. Formerly titled Malavita (an infinitely cooler name), the movie, whose poster and trailer were just released, could be imagined as a continuation of the Soprano clan’s saga, as it follows a proud mafioso (Robert De Niro), his not-to-be-messed-with wife (Michelle Pfeiffer), their angsty daughter (Diana Agron), and their mischievous son (John D’Leo) as they all struggle to adjust to their life in witness protection, a life some fans thought was the fate of Tony, Carmela, et al.

On Location Las Vegas

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On Location: Las Vegas
On Location: Las Vegas

Like many, I did my vacationing first by way of the movie screen, making all subsequent traveling the realization of romanticized visions. When I moved to New York, it was a thousand cinematic moments made real, an excitement that still continues in spurts, despite the inevitably of the city having become, simply, the place where I live. But wherever I go, for the first time, specifically, there’s some kind of filmic attachment. In Rome, there was the evocation of countless Fellini scenes, and in Iceland…well, there wasn’t much in Iceland, really, save the Blue Lagoon spa, a high-tech, seemingly impossible haven that I’ll always compare to a Bond villain’s lair. Las Vegas, where my partner and I recently went for our fifth anniversary, has its own unique link to the movies. One might even say the town has spawned its own subgenre. Defined by glitz and excess, it’s a place that was built to be photographed, so much so that I even started to feel guilty, as it inspired more snapshots from me than the whole of Vatican City. It’s also a veritable theme park for adults, preferably for those willing to, if I may quote the Showgirls tagline, “leave [their] inhibitions at the door.” The entire atmosphere is one of fantasy, which, thanks to film, has evolved through various stages of glorification. And the city, in an almost otherworldly way, welcomes those chasing that fantasy with, big, outstretched, glittering arms, standing as a mecca of gluttony, temptation, and, of course, sin. You don’t have to be bad to do Vegas right, but it helps, as the movies have certainly taught us.

Oscar 2013 Winner Predictions Supporting Actor

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Oscar 2013 Winner Predictions: Supporting Actor
Oscar 2013 Winner Predictions: Supporting Actor

All right, all right, all right. We should’ve known. As it turned out, Matthew McConaughey’s still supple ass cheeks in Magic Mike were no match for AMPAS’s preference for saggy old balls in this category. And not just old, but used balls. As was pointed out during this year’s overproduced nominations press conference, all five nominees have already won Oscars. And so in the absence of a swimsuit competition, the narrative this go around shifts onto the question of which person do Academy members feel most deserves another trophy, and which of them is the most overdue?

Oscar 2013 Nomination Predictions: Supporting Actor

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Oscar 2013 Nomination Predictions: Supporting Actor
Oscar 2013 Nomination Predictions: Supporting Actor

With all due respect to the gentlemen in contention, this year’s likely Supporting Actor crop has shaped up to be a snooze, filled with veterans who, however gifted, feel like obvious choices, and whose singling out undermines some truly vibrant male turns. It’s true that Silver Linings Playbook boasted Robert De Niro’s best performance in years, giving the actor a tender comic role that required more than just cracking wise and mugging for the camera. And frontrunner Tommy Lee Jones turned in fine, fiery work in Lincoln, bringing complex life to abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, whose character arc is arguably the movie’s most dramatic. But both industry icons still feel a tad like instant candidates, and they’re liable to be joined by Alan Arkin (Argo) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Master), both of whom have been lauded for performances that are neither remarkable nor surprising. As consistent and consummately professional as Meryl Streep, Hoffman is faithfully intense as L. Ron Hubbard stand-in Lancaster Dodd, but there’s nothing in the character we haven’t seen him play before. And Arkin, whose crotchety film producer is a wellspring of rib-elbowing condescension, seems to have joined this race merely for his seasoned way with one-liners.

Oscar Prospects: Silver Linings Playbook

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Oscar Prospects: Silver Linings Playbook
Oscar Prospects: Silver Linings Playbook

It’s certainly easy to accuse David O. Russell of becoming a serial Oscar courter. Having clearly enjoyed the awards love showered upon The Fighter, Russell’s gone on to adapt and direct Matthew Quick’s Silver Linings Playbook, packing about five baity movies into one big crowd-pleasing quirkfest. Those who’ve followed Russell’s career will say he’s always padded banal substrates with the bizarre, but the filmmaker’s new run of Academy-friendly fare is still worlds away from his former curios, like I Heart Huckabees or Spanking the Monkey. He’s embracing the practice of bringing his gonzo tendencies to the mainstream, and if he’s indeed hoping to woo Oscar voters in the process, the plan is working. With Silver Linings Playbook, viewers are gifted a buffet of cheer-worthy tropes, all stretched along a simple narrative track and dressed with Russellian weirdness. A mental illness dramedy that deals with sports, dance, romance, and lovably grotesque relatives, it manages to feel fleetingly fresh while recalling Rocky, As Good As It Gets, Dirty Dancing, and even The Fighter too. If there’s anything especially adept about the storytelling, it’s its ability to trick an audience into buying its faux newness, and even if voters don’t fall for the recycling, they’re still liable to take the movie’s bait. With a thin batch of comedic contenders, its Best Picture nod is secured, as may be the nods for Russell’s Direction and Adapted Screenplay.