Archive for Robert DeNiro

Youthification without Youth

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on November 22, 2019 by dcairns

I really really like THE IRISHMAN and want to see it again.

Consider the trilogy, now — GOODFELLAS (youth); CASINO (middle age); THE IRISHMAN (old age).

Consider the peculiar mix of brilliance and craziness in Scorsese’s use of the de-aging technology, or what he calls “youthification,” and its effects.

It certainly wouldn’t be the same film with a younger actor wearing old-age make-up for the older scenes. First, there’s the history of De Niro on the screen and our relationship with his image, and his relationship with Scorsese and our memories of their previous collaborations.

Casting an older actor and making him younger tells us what the film’s priorities are: having a 100% real old De Niro is more important than having a 100% real young De Niro.

After half an hour I stopped paying attention to what they had done digitally to the leads. I was always slightly conscious of it, I suppose, but it in no sense distracted me. One of the advantages of having a long film.

Since this tech is evolving, I wondered if this pioneering example will come to look embarrassing in a few years. I sort of suspect that even if we see more perfect de-agings in future, our reactions to this one will be fairly consistent… we’ll notice that something has been done, and then we’ll get used to it as the film goes on.

They haven’t recreated the young DeNiro of TAXI DRIVER or even GOODFELLAS. They have removed some lines from De Niro’s big, twenty-tens face, creating a whole different appearance. I guess they wanted him to look as much like his current self as possible, only a good bit younger. Our noses and ears grow as we age, De Niro has put on some weight, gravity has pulled at that weight. The effects people don’t mess with any of that, they just remove the obvious marks of aging. I *think* that’s a less distracting choice than recreating a specific De Niro or set of De Niro’s from the past. If we suddenly saw Travis Bickle or James Conway or Max Cady’s face, I think it would be startling, distracting, TOO MUCH of a callback to the actor and filmmaker’s shared history.

And certainly this is an amazing advance comparing it to the Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher fails in ROGUE ONE and most of the other stuff I’ve seen which attempts comparable tricks. And De Niro can act through it.

Some have pointed out that they can’t make De Niro move like a young man. Apparently, they had a movement coach on set all the time to help with that. But a guy in his seventies doesn’t move that way out of choice, it comes naturally. Some people retain youthful movement, some do not, and I would think it’s a very hard thing to assume once it’s gone. But, though De Niro’s walk does not put you in mind of a younger man, it didn’t seem to me impossible that a forty-year-old or whatever might walk like that. The guy’s a truck driver, I’m not expecting Fred Astaire. So I noted it for what it was and didn’t let it bother me.

So, what’s been done with De Niro and Pesci (magnificent), then, makes complete sense, allowing us most access to them, with least visual interference, when they’re old.

In a way, what’s been done with Al Pacino makes no sense at all. And yet I can’t complain.

Pacino never plays Jimmy Hoffa in his seventies — the man disappeared (and we learn a convincing version of what may have happened to him) in his early sixties.

Of course Pacino isn’t Hoffa’s German/Irish-American mix any more than De Niro is an Irishman. And they haven’t tried to digitally make Pacino look like Hoffa. The lines in the movie about how Hoffa isn’t really remembered too much anymore are the filmmakers’ “out” letting them ignore the character’s historical appearance. Again, he’s a de-aged version of the actor who doesn’t look like Pacino did in his forties, fifties or sixties.

While we may bemoan the supposition that Scorsese could only get this movie made via Netflix, it’s a remarkable testimony to his influence that he could get ANYONE to sign off on this extremely expensive and untested approach whereby an actor who is too old for the part will be altered to fit, when casting a younger man would self-evidently be easier, cheaper, more natural, safer, and more likely to assure commercial success (though of course the combo of Pacino + Scorsese + De Niro is more marketable than Pacino is by himself). It’s a piece of casting that flies in the face of everything — and Pacino is the most entertaining actor in the film (with Stephen Graham as his main foil a close second) and you wouldn’t ever want to see anyone else in the part.

In fact, just as Pacino brings a blast of energy into the film when he arrives (and his tendency to explode if very well used here, no complaints about overacting from me), the effect of his departure is equally striking — a lot of the life goes out of the film, De Niro gets even more muted — his phone call to the widow is one of the greatest things he’s ever done — and there’s nothing left but the slow, inexorable slide towards senescence and death.

Catherine Scorsese to her son from her hospital bed: “Well, we were put here to suffer.”

Zero is the Loneliest Number

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 7, 2018 by dcairns

I love the weird diminishing array of phones. And the lack of nose room for DeNiro — it creates an imbalance that eventually helps justify the camera taking off on its own, tracking right in a way completely unmotivated by onscreen movement, a move which “corrects” the composition — and then keeps going, like an automaton, into nothingness.

If you’ll forgive me, I’m going to keep delving into TAXI DRIVER.

When Martin Scorsese came to o a Q&A in Edinburgh, preceding the release of THE COLOR OF MONEY in 1986, the teenage me, who had only recently discovered his work, was in attendance, and my hand shot up when the call went out for questions from the floor. There’s usually an awkward pause when such a request is made, so if you sit at the front (desirable for movies, essential for personal appearances), and you DO have a question, this is the time to ask it.

Scorsese had been talking frankly about his career, the current scene in Hollywood (“The studios like to be able to look out their office windows and see what’s going on, and their offices are in San Francisco, so if the films can be set in San Francisco, they like that. Like the new STAR TREK is set in San Francisco. Really. They go back in time. And they save the whales. No, really!”) and the recent collapse of the original planned version of THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (“Aidan Quinn was already losing weight for it…”)

I asked about Travis’s phone call to Betsy in TAXI DRIVER, and you can read most of Scorsese’s answer in Scorsese on Scorsese ~

“That was the first shot I thought of for the film, and it was the last I filmed. I liked it because I sensed that it added to the loneliness of the whole thing, but I guess you can see the hand behind the camera there.”

I had mentioned in my question that some critics had objected to the shot — as I recall, Kael was one — on those grounds. I had found the shot mysterious, since tracking away from your subject and staring at an empty space seems counter-intuitive. It reminds me now of Mike Hodges’ reasoning for pulling away from a tragic moment in THE TERMINAL MAN. “It’s too painful!” He tries to give the character some privacy. And “the Americans,” he says, couldn’t understand this at all. The Hollywood system is to push in on the emotion. That’s why Kael flinched at it, and why teenage me found it mysterious.

But Hodges’ approach, and even more so Scorsese’s, produces the appropriate emotion in an indirect, discreet way. What’s more lonely than Travis on the phone to Betsy, hopelessly failing to get through to her on a clear line? That empty corridor leading out into night and the city, which he will finally walk down.

Running on Empty

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 9, 2015 by dcairns

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Both of John Frankenheimer’s last cinema features, RONIN (1998) and REINDEER GAMES (2000), are set at yuletide, though the latter, with its heaps of bloodstained Santas lying dead in the snow, is certainly the more festive. Most of the best Christmas films are the work of Jewish filmmakers anyway.

RONIN, which I saw at the cinema when it was new, for DeNiro’s sake, and which I just showed to Fiona, seems the better film, which is interesting — RG has a twisty-turny plot with a killer set-up and an escalating menace and a truly ludicrous volte-face at the end which makes perfect narrative sense, in its demented way, but simply can’t be believed for an instant. RONIN is just about a bunch of guys (and Natasha McElhone) trying to get their hands on a shiny box (well, it IS Christmas). There are double-crosses and there are action sequences and there is, essentially, nothing else.

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David Mamet wrote pretty much all the dialogue and then they wouldn’t give him sole credit so he used a pseudonym. His terse, hardboiled stuff is quite effective here, sparser than usual because everybody is trying to make this movie be like a Jean-Pierre Melville heist flick — the title clearly references LE SAMOURAI. What ultimately elevates the tone into something approaching Melville’s oddly serious pastiche style, is the music of Elia Cmiral, which imposes a palpable melancholy over the quieter scenes.

Frankenheimer and DoP Robert Fraisse frame gorgeously. While the all-real car chases attract most of the attention, with the camera scudding just above the tarmac as we rocket through Paris and Nice (is that fapping sound a burst tire or Claude Lelouch furiously masturbating?), the scenes of plotting and confronting and staring down are so beautifully framed and cut, every frame seething with dynamic tension, with a chilly blue metallic tinge, that I could cheerfully watch a version of this movie without any of the searing mayhem.

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I recently contributed an essay on Frankenheimer to Masters of Cinema’s essential Blu-ray edition of SECONDS. This was subject to oversight by Paramount’s lawyers, who are strangely fussy creatures — they objected to my harsher words about some of Frankenheimer’s lesser works. To my surprise and wicked pleasure, though, the overall gist of the piece escaped their notice — in comparing Frankenheimer to the protagonist of SECONDS, I suggested that he had cut him off from his authentic self and become a hollow shell, making empty films whose most compelling subject matter is their own emptiness. In this regard, RONIN is a brilliant summation.

The whole plot revolves around this shiny box, a pure MacGuffin whose contents are never revealed (doubtless they glow when the box is opened, but it never is). By the end, it even transpires that the box is itself irrelevant, a decoy for an assassin, not what the plot was revolving around at all. And the title, meaning masterless samurai, patiently explained by Michael Lonsdale (yay! Michael Lonsdale!), turns out not to be an honest description of the protagonist. An empty film about emptiness, with Frankenheimer even reprising his shots of boxes and corpses montage from THE TRAIN, which he would re-reprise in his very next film.

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The jarring note is the end, where some idiot has decided the film SHOULD, after all, be about something, and has dubbed in a radio broadcast alleging that the plot had something to do with the Northern Ireland peace process. So all that carnage was in a good cause. This is completely unacceptable — I kind of respected the movie’s ruthlessness in staging shoot-outs and car chases on the streets in which innocents are casually mown down and blown up. I accepted that this was a dog-eat-dog, amoral world we were being shown. To now try to argue that all this collateral damage is somehow JUSTIFIED in a HIGHER CAUSE is the work of a moral imbecile. It feels like a studio afterthought. On this second viewing I’m able to disregard the nonsense, but it throws Fiona for a loop, as does Jean Reno’s sudden internal monologue, which ends the picture. “He never had a voiceover before! What happened?”

“Somebody panicked,” I suggest. To make a truly hollow movie takes guts, something Frankenheimer had.