February 10th, 2014

LEGENDS OF THE SILVER SCREEN: ROBERT DE NIRO

Robert De Niro is one of the greatest actors of all time. But what makes him a Legend is his sheer prolific nature. He keeps cranking them out at a steady clip and is showing no signs of slowing down. Today, we’ll take a look at three of De Niro’s films.

First up is…

THE LAST TYCOON (1976) **

Elia (A Streetcar Named Desire) Kazan got Harold Pinter to adapt F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final unfinished novel for the screen. I guess that sounded like a great idea on paper. Too bad the screenplay feels unfinished too. (Scenes go on and on with no payoff, and the film is often dramatically inert.)

The Last Tycoon is one of those movies about the golden age of Hollywood. (Robert De Niro’s character is loosely based on Irving Thalberg.) Fittingly, it features a who’s who of movie stars. John Carradine, Tony Curtis, Robert Mitchum, Ray Milland, Theresa Russell (making her debut), Anjelica Huston, Donald Pleasence, and Jack Nicholson all appear. Because of that, the film coasts on mere star power alone. But star power alone isn’t enough to make for a good movie.

De Niro stars as studio head Monroe Stahr. He’s slowly working himself to death while pining away for his lost love. Monroe finds love again with a new beauty (Ingrid Boulting), but when she leaves him for another man, his professional life spirals out of control.

Kazan does a nice job at evoking the period. The costumers and set designers were all working at the top of their game. So there's that. It’s like a beautiful shining brand new car without an engine. It looks great, but it never goes anywhere.

De Niro is in nearly every scene and while he gives it his all, his character is mostly a cypher. There are some good standout scenes (like when he gives Donald Pleasence a screenwriting lesson), but the film is mostly a collection of vignettes instead of a cohesive narrative. Because of that, we never really learn much about the character, which makes it hard for us to care about him.

Critics were unkind to the film when it was released. Most of the reviews from the time placed the blame on Boulting’s performance. And although she’s not very good, she’s not the real problem. (She does have a pretty good nude scene.) The love story aspect is a bit flat, but it’s the listless script is the real issue. And the black and white scenes of the movie Stahr is producing don’t add much to the film.

If anything, the film is worth watching just to see Robert De Niro and Jack Nicholson together on screen. If anyone else had played these scenes together, no one would’ve given a shit because the dialogue is tepid and the drama is pretty much nonexistent. But since it features De Niro’s quiet intensity and Jack flashing his trademark grin, it’s almost worthwhile. Their scenes come late in the movie and lack any real resonance, but they’re easily the most memorable thing about the film. And like the movie itself, it ultimately doesn’t amount to much. Still, if you ever wanted to see Robert De Niro and Jack Nicholson play ping pong together…

Our next De Niro flick is…

1900 (1977) **

Bernardo Bertolucci directed this epic failure starring some big name stars like Robert De Niro, Gerard Depardieu, Donald Sutherland, and Burt Lancaster. It runs five hours and seventeen minutes and the narrative spans generations, two world wars, and the rise and fall of governments. I’m sure that somewhere deep in 1900 there is a good two and a half hour movie waiting to get out. Since it runs 317 minutes, that means you have to wade through a helluva lot of filler to find it.

Two boys are born on the same Italian plantation on the same day. De Niro is the grandson of the man of the house (Lancaster) and Depardieu is a bastard born to one of the servants (Sterling Hayden). Even though they play together as children, they eventually grow apart due to time, wealth, class, and politics.

1900 was bound to be branded as “too long”, and yes, it is too long. It’s a sprawling mess, but there are some fascinating stretches and a few rather jaw-dropping moments. Among them:

• Donald Sutherland being brutally stabbed by pitchfork-wielding peasants.

• Burt Lancaster kicking a hunchback servant in the ass.

• A kid wearing a hat full of squirming, dying frogs.

• A guy cutting off his own ear.

• An epileptic whore jerks off De Niro and Depardieu graphic detail.

• Donald Sutherland headbutting a cat to death.

These moments aside, I’m sure Bertolucci could’ve trimmed about two hours of fat off this thing. For every good hour the movie has, it has two extremely boring hours that follow it up. And somewhere around the third hour of the film, my interest began to wane. (I think it was around the point Sutherland started buggering kids and bashing their brains in. Or perhaps it was when the pig was gutted.)

The conflict between De Niro and Depardieu is at the center of the film, but sometimes Bertolucci goes a bit overboard contrasting the characters. I’m thinking specifically of the scene where as boys they compare penises. The rich kid is circumcised and the poor kid isn’t. It’s as if Bertolucci is saying, “SEE how different they are? Even their dicks are different!”

But oddly enough, the scenes of the kids growing up are probably the best in the movie. There is at least a good structure to these scenes. Once the kids grow up to become Robert De Niro and Gerard Depardieu, the flick sorta becomes aimless.

Robert De Niro looks kinda lost in his scenes. Still, his charisma keeps his scenes going. Whenever he’s not on screen in the later part of the film, it’s certainly lacking something. Depardieu isn’t nearly as equipped to carry the film and his scenes away from De Niro are among the weakest in the film. Sutherland’s embarrassingly hammy performance is another major debit.

Sometimes Bertolucci goes for outlandish, garish exploitation fits of craziness. Most of these scenes are overblown (especially the scenes involving Sutherland’s villainy) and are at odds with the epic Bertolucci is making. At least these bouts of weirdness make the movie at the very least, memorable.

But the most disappointing thing about the film is the ending. After five hours of all this, you’d like to have some sort of closure. Sadly, what transpires in the last few reels (De Niro’s workers revolt against him) feels forced. And when the final fight between De Niro and Depardieu comes, Bertolucci fucks with the audience by pulling the camera back until they're just a speck on the screen. Then he pans away! What the fuck? Imagine if you sat through the entire Star Wars saga and then Richard Marquand panned away from the second Death Star just as Lando flew the Millennium Falcon inside. How pissy would you be?

And our final De Niro movie is…

GODSEND (2004) ** ½

Robert De Niro usually doesn’t do many horror movies, but when he does, they’re pretty good. I happen to think that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of the more underrated horror flicks of the ‘90s. Godsend finds De Niro playing not the monster, but the doctor who gives birth to one.

Greg Kinnear and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos star as a couple whose son (Cameron Bright) dies. They get mad doctor Robert De Niro to clone the boy (of course, his name is “Adam”), who at first seems perfectly normal. But once he reaches the age that the original Adam died, he changes into your typical Bad Seed/Good Son type of innocent-seeming killer.

Godsend starts off really well. As a parent, I know there would be nothing more devastating than the loss of a child. And seeing the lengths Kinnear and Romijn-Stamos go through to fill that void is a good set-up. I will say that that the whole grief-stricken-parent-who-brings-their-son-back-only-to-find-he’s-a-killer territory was mined much better in Pet Sematary. But as far as these things go, the first hour is quite absorbing.

Sadly, the pooch gets screwed and it gets screwed hard in the final 45 minutes. Once Adam becomes a killer, the film stalls. Romijn-Stamos’ character becomes abysmally passive while Kinnear turns into a half-assed Columbo. And the ending is pretty terrible. In fact, it’s one big non-ending that sets things up for a sequel, but how can you set things up for a sequel when you don’t even properly resolve the business at hand?

De Niro is pretty good, especially in the early scenes. Once his more evil nature is revealed, he resists the temptation to chew the scenery, which is admirable. And Kinnear and Romijn-Stamos strike the right balance during the scenes where they mourn their son’s death. I especially liked the part where Kinnear just hands her the phone to call De Niro. He doesn’t say a word, but his face says it all. Too bad these earnest performances get lost in the shuffle during the film’s clunky final act.

Next week’s Legend: Al Pacino.

COBRA MISSION 2 (1988) *

Brett Clark (“Nick the Dick” from Bachelor Party) takes over for Christopher Connelly in this extremely shitty and terribly dull sequel to Cobra Mission. The American government hires Clark to get the goods on some South American dictator. Clark poses as a journalist and with a team of soldiers; he witnesses firsthand the dictator’s cruelty. Clark then defies orders and decides to take out the dictator once and for all.

Cobra Mission 2 is one of the most boring movies I have sat through in quite some time. Even when guys are running around and shooting each other, nothing ever really HAPPENS. The plot had promise, but every scene just sits there. The pacing is nonexistent and the 90 minute running time feels much, much longer.

The way they try to connect this to Cobra Mission 1 is pretty hilarious. Some general talks to Clark about what happened in the first film. Then Clark has a flashback. But since Clark wasn’t in the first movie, we just see a random shot of Clark in an army uniform running through some field in slow motion. Seriously, that’s it.

I can say two good things about Cobra Mission 2. First of all, it’s in focus. And secondly, at least Nick the Dick was getting a paycheck out of all this. Imagine. While Tom Hanks was off making Big, poor Brett Clark was in Italy making this crap. At least he bounced back with a couple of appearances in Andy Sidaris movies.

Our friend, Exploding Helicopter has a great take on the film here: http://explodinghelicopter.blogspot.co.uk/2011/11/cobra-mission-2.html#!/2011/11/cobra-mission-2.html

SKINAMAX-A-PALOOZA: MELISSA JACOBS DOUBLE FEATURE

For me, Melissa Jacobs is one of the hottest, sexiest, and most appealing actresses in Skinamax movies today. So what better way to celebrate Skinamax-A-Palooza than with a double feature of Melissa Jacobs films? Both films were directed by Jim Wynorski protégée Louis DeWalnut, and while they lack the fun of Wynorski’s films; they do have their charms.

MONSTER OF THE NUDIST COLONY (2013) ***

An ape (or more accurately, a guy in an ape costume) is terrorizing the Double D Nudist Colony. A square detective (Frankie Cullen) and his hot wife (Melissa Jacobs) head on out there to check things out. Frankie looks for the ape while Melissa has fun getting it on with the colonists. Meanwhile, the ape runs around kidnapping the girls, tying them up, and making them dance for him.

Monster of the Nudist Colony is sort of a remake of Barry Mahon’s The Beast That Killed Women. And like that film, it’s one of the best ape-in-a-nudist-camp movies ever made. Director Louis DeWalnut knows Rule # 1 of any Nudist Camp movie: You’ve got to have naked people playing volleyball in there. He even gives us a pretty great nudist tennis scene too!

DeWalnut may not be as polished when it comes to the sex scenes as say, Jim Wynorski or Fred Olen Ray, but he certainly provides enough of them. Despite some flaws here and there (I wish he held the camera a bit longer during the lesbian scissoring scenes), DeWalnut at least knows Rule # 1 of Video Vacuum Filmmaking: Quantity Over Quality. So this guy definitely knows what he’s doing. Not only that; but nearly all of the sex scenes take place outdoors with the benefit of great, natural lighting.

The flick runs 78 minutes. In that time we get thirteen sex scenes: Eight Guy on Girl scenes, three Girl on Girl scenes, one Girl on Girl on Girl on Girl scene (in a swimming pool), and one Orgy scene. That means we get a sex scene every six minutes or so. And that’s a pretty darn good sex-to-sec ratio.

Jacobs gives another great performance. She is sexy in her sex scenes and has genuine charisma and screen presence in her dialogue scenes. She has a good sex scene with Frankie Cullen, is engaging in her the four way lesbian scene, and has a hot sex scene in front of a mirror.

And like any good Skinamax flick, Monster of the Nudist Colony has some great Rooby Breastnut songs on the soundtrack. Even better, she also has a cameo as a cop! What more could you possibly want from a Skinamax movie?

SERENA THE SEXPLORER (2013) ** ½

Serena (Melissa Jacobs) is an alien who comes to Earth to steal our sex secrets. She meets various couples and has sex with them. When some of her newfound friends try to introduce her to the game, “Spin the Bottle”, an all-out orgy erupts.

Sex-starved aliens in nudie movies are nothing new. I’m a sucker for these things actually. Maybe that’s why I’m sorta forgiving of this film.

The problem is there just isn’t enough plot here. That’s not a major complaint, but I’ve seen stag reels with more plot than this movie. In fact, the movie is so light on plot that it has to recycle all the sex scenes at the end! (During the final scene of the film when Serena uploads her data to the ship.) Afterwards, we get an end credits sequence that is heavily padded with recycled dialogue scenes. All in all, the last ten minutes of the movie is nothing more that repeated footage!

The look of the movie is also pretty cheap, even by Skinamax standards. The spaceship set is nothing more than a bed sheet draped in the background! And Serena’s communicator is nothing more than a dildo! Again, I’m forgiving because I’m a fan of the genre, but still…

These debits don’t really matter too much when Melissa Jacobs looks so sexy in her space outfit. She has a winning personality in her “acting” scenes too, which certainly helps. But her performance alone isn’t enough to disguise the fact that Serena the Sexplorer is definitely a notch or two below something like Monster of the Nudist Colony.

All in all there are thirteen sex scenes. We get six Guy on Girl scenes, three Guy on Girl on Girl scenes, two Girl on Girl on Girl scenes, one Girl on Girl scene, and one Orgy scene. Since the flick runs a scant 72 minutes, that means we get a sex scene every 5 ½ minutes. And that’s a great ratio, even if the scenes themselves aren’t especially steamy.

JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT (2014) ***

Jack Ryan’s third first adventure finds him tangling with a Russian agent (Kenneth Branagh, who also directed) trying to undermine America’s economy by triggering a second Depression. He’s also planning a terrorist attack on American soil at the same time to act as a double whammy. It’s up to Jack (Chris Pine), his wife (Keira Knightley), and his mentor (Kevin Costner) to break in his office and find out when and where he plans to attack.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is a competent and efficient thriller, but it doesn’t exactly knock your socks off either. Even though we get a car chase or two, there aren’t any real big action set pieces here, just some very finely constructed scenes of sustained suspense. In that respect, it’s a low key hi-tech thriller, but one that works.

The performances certainly help sell the material. Kevin Costner is excellent, with the role of aging mentor fitting him like a glove. Branagh finds some subtle nuances in what could’ve been just a one-dimensional baddie. And Keira Knightley looks hot while acting like Anne Hathaway as Ryan’s girlfriend.

Chris Pine makes for a suitable Jack Ryan. He’s a bit on the bland side here, lacking the spark that made his turn as Captain Kirk so memorable. But since Jack Ryan was always a bland boy scout anyway, his performance fits the character.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is about middle of the road as far as Jack Ryan movies go. It’s entertaining, yet lacks the punch of something like Patriot Games or the spectacle of The Sum of All Fears. It’s certainly more fun than the overrated Hunt for Red October, I know that much.