UNDER-RATED CLASSICS #8 – THE NINTH CONFIGURATION (1980)
Directed, written and produced by: William Peter Blatty
Based on The Ninth Configuration by William Peter Blatty
Starring: Stacy Keach, Scott Wilson, Jason Miller, Ed Flanders, Robert Loggia, Moses Gunn, Joe Spinell, Neville Brand etc.
Music by: Barry De Vorzon
Cinematography: Gerry Fisher
*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***
“I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.” ― Edgar Allan Poe
Sparked by uber-film critic Mark Kermode waxing lyrical about The Ninth Configuration (1980) in one of his cinema books, I was extremely pleased when I found a remastered 2016 reissue streaming on Amazon Prime. I don’t always agree with Kermode’s effusive praise of certain films, however, his opinion should always be respected. Having watched the film I can concur that it is indeed an under-rated classic. Just to clarify, for me, an under-rated classic can be a film I love, plus satisfy the following criteria:
Must not have won an Oscar.
Must not have won a BAFTA.
Must not appear in the AFI Top 100 list.
Must not appear in the IMDB Top 250 list.
Must not appear in the BFI 100 Great British films.
Must not appear in the all-time highest grossing movies of list.
While the writer and director, William Peter Blatty, won a Golden Globe for best screenplay, I feel that The Ninth Configuration (1980) is somewhat of a lost masterpiece. It was released at the same time as Ordinary People (1980) , The Elephant Man (1980) andRaging Bull (1980) and rarely seems to be discussed or praised at all these days. Well, aside from Mark Kermode’s gratefully received validation. Thematically, it is very strong as it deals with mental breakdown and illness amidst soldiers post-Vietnam. Moreover, it also contains memorable iconography within a curiously foreboding setting.
Based on Blatty’s 1978 novel, which in itself was a reworking of an earlier story called, Twinkle, Twinkle “Killer” Kane, The Ninth Configurationcentres the action in a grand chateau located, rather weirdly in America somewhere. The dark, shadowy castle (which was actually in Germany), is surrounded by deep forestation and is used by the U.S. government as an insane asylum for military personnel. Spring-boarding themes and ideas from movies such as: One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Mash (1970) and, in regards to its exploration of P.T.S.D., The Deer Hunter (1978), the narrative features a whole host of eccentric and over-the-edge characters. They include an Astronaut, Captain Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson), who went mad and sabotaged a space launch, Jason Miller as Lieutenant Frankie Reno, a soldier attempting to direct Hamlet with a cast of dogs; and the recently arrived, new psychiatrist, Colonel Vincent Kane (Stacey Keach). It is Kane’s and Cutshaw’s developing relationship which powers many of the philosophical and existential debates within the film’s incredible script.
For a film set in an asylum Blatty unsurpisingly uses dark humour, hysterical personalities and some incredibly funny lines of dialogue to propel an absurd first half. However, as Cutshaw and Kane’s connection grows deeper, the two men push each other into some very dark places. Exploring the slight gap between insanity and sanity is a tricky thing to get right in terms of tone, however, Blatty, is a brilliant writer and succeeds with a script that zig-zags the line between chaos and structure. He also benefits from an amazing ensemble cast of character actors who throw themselves heartily into the chaos on show. Scott Wilson and Stacey Keach are especially memorable in their intense and honest portrayals of soldiers pushed too far by their respective commands.
Overall, The Ninth Configuration (1980) is a forgotten masterpiece which deserves revisiting. I was blown away by the endlessly quotable dialogue and the risks Blatty took as a director. I mean, he opens with an incongruous Country and Western song-backed montage before the credits. This pop video beginning is jarring, but somehow makes sense in the end. Blatty then veers between farcical humour, crazed episodes involving the lunatics taking over the asylum, and philosophical and theological discourse within the therapy sessions. Finally, the film finishes with a violent and cathartic denouement, yet one which, given the dark existentialism that has unfolded, is amazingly full of hope, faith and optimism.
Main Cast: Larry David, Jeff Garlin, Cheryl Hines, Susie Essman, J. B. Smoove, Ted Danson, Richard Lewis, Vince Vaughan, Kaitlin Olson etc.
Guests: Mila Kunis, Clive Owen, Laverne Cox, Chris Martin, Sean Penn, Jonah Hill, Jon Hamm, Philip Rosenthaland many more.
Distribution Platform: HBO (USA) – SKY (UK)
**CONTAINS MASSIVE SPOILERS**
“AH! INTERESTING. . . “
During a lengthy hiatus from 2011 to 2017, fans of Curb Your Enthusiasm were left bereft of their dose of Larry David’s inimitable and eccentric behaviour. The multi-millionaire writer of Seinfeld had carved out a wonderfully politically incorrect comedy series, full of misunderstanding, farce and hilariously embarrassing situations. Thankfully, he returned with season 9, and it was absolutely brilliant. Larry managed to get himself a death sentence, having written a musical called Fatwa, along with all manner of other comedic shenanigans. Season 10 has now followed and, once again, anti-heroic Larry delivers ten more fantastically offensive and funny episodes. More often than not we find his behaviour abhorrent as he goes about upsetting friends, family members, celebrities, and strangers on a daily basis. However, sometimes we are with Larry and his actions have merit and reason. Furthermore, due to the wonderful writing, improvising, cast and situations the humour is always more than pretty, pretty good!
NARRATIVE ARC (OF THE COVENANT)
Usually, Curb Your Enthusiasm episodes can stand alone due to the richness of the narrative strands Larry David and his writers create. But most seasons will have a very solid narrative arc running through it to provide looping rejoinders, a structural spine and a fitting conclusion. In season 10, there were echoes of storylines from prior seasons. Larry wanted to get back with Cheryl and they even committed divorced adultery, cuckolding Ted Danson in the process. However, the main arc revolved around the return of coffee store owner, Mocha Joe (Saverio Guerra). Larry pisses Mocha Joe off because he complains about “cold” coffee, wobbly tables and weak scones. Following Larry’s customary banishing he swears revenge on Mocha Joe. This takes the form of the wonderfully named ‘spite store’ he sets up next door. Thus, Latte Larry’s is born, and ten episodes of fast-paced, tit-for-tat, vengeful and hilarious scenes ensue.
“THE GOLDEN RULE” – STYLE AND THEMES
Curb Your Enthusiasm is not just funny because of the situations, dialogue, observations, guest stars and acting performances. It is also very sophisticated and stupid, combining a variety of comedy styles to fuel the humour. Earlier seasons could be argued to be more based in reality per se. The interactions between the characters felt more natural, in keeping with the pilot episode which was shot as a mockumentary about Larry returning to stand-up. Later seasons, especially seasons 9 and 10, upped the gag rate and one could even say felt slicker. Don’t get me wrong, the jokes have always come thick and fast in Curb Your Enthusiasm, but in the last two seasons there is not only a reliance on the usual comedy of embarrassment, observations and satire, but farce, slapstick and gross-out humour too have been added to the palette. Lastly, the show has always skated close to the edge in regard to non-PC humour and causing offence. Evidently, Larry David has now fully thrown himself over that edge and is happy to offend everyone in a two-fingered salute to so-called snowflakes or liberals out there.
In regard to thematics, Larry David clearly has his finger on the pulse relating to contemporary society, politics and human behaviour. Much of the humour and funny scenarios derive from what is acceptable behaviour and certain “rules” within everyday living. In season 10, Larry finds himself questioning, among other things: the behaviour of a pregnant woman; the merits of artificial fruit; what is and what isn’t’ sufficient praise; usage of disable parking badges; whether he should be in a restaurant’s ‘ugly section’; whether sex with Cheryl’s sister is post-relationship cheating; and the overall benefits of running a spite store. These elements, the running feuds with Ted Danson, Mocha Joe and Larry’s assistant, Alice, and themes relating to the Harvey Weinstein scandal and #MeToo movement; Larry and Leon’s continued chats about the nature of being black/white; Donald Trump’s presidency; fat shaming; suicide; Susie’s alleged plot to murder Jeff; nationalist ridicule; egotistic actor types; and transgender issues, all connectedly make this season a very rich product, full of ideas and challenging storylines.
“PRETTY GOOD. . . ” – EPISODE RATINGS
Episode 1 – Happy New Year – (8.5 out of 10)
Larry goes to war with Mocha Joe and reignites his romance with Cheryl. His relationship with his assistant also descends into accusations of sexual harassment.
Highlight: Larry wearing his Donald Trump, “Make America Great Again!”and ensuring no one wants to be seen with him.
Episode 2 – Side Sitting – (8.5 out of 10)
Larry’s relationship with his assistant, Alice, is possibly going to court unless he settles and makes amends. His attempts to get back with Cheryl are rebuked, so he dates his lawyer’s assistant.
Highlight: Larry gives Susie a portrait of herself as a birthday present. She loves it – but Jeff doesn’t.
Episode 3 – Artificial Fruit – (9 out of 10)
Larry’s donation to a charity fails to bring forward redemption when he refuses to hug Laverne Cox at an event, because she has a cold. Meanwhile, Richard and Larry argue over who is paying a lunch bill, leading to a very embarrassing escapade at a Spanish funeral.
Highlights: Larry is unsure if the Heimlich manoeuvre is appropriate when his assistant is choking. Plus, Larry’s doodle debate with Christine Lahti blows up into a serious disagreement.
Episode 4 – You’re not going to get me to say anything bad About! – (9 out of 10)
Larry, Donna (his new girlfriend), Cheryl, Jeff, Susie and Leon go to Cabo San Lucas for a friend’s wedding. Larry becomes fixated with Donna’s yo-yo dieting, but he and Leon do find some incredible coffee beans for Latte Larry’s.
Highlight: Larry’s determination to locate a toothbrush descends into a farcical conclusion. Later, at the wedding, Ted discovers Larry and Cheryl’s infidelity in a hilarious fashion.
Episode 5 – Insufficient Praise! – (9 out of 10)
Preparations for Latte Larry’s gather pace as Larry asks for a specific urinal type. Larry also gets a new housekeeper and is given a sex doll by Freddy Funkhouser. Meanwhile, Larry clashes with actor Clive Owen and Richard Lewis’ new girlfriend; a professional “crier”.
Highlights: Larry’s frantic battle with the sex doll resulting in his housekeeper and Cheryl catching him. Also, Clive Owen’s brilliantly pretentious send-up of narcissistic acting types.
Episode 6 – The Surprise Party! – (8.5 out of 10)
Larry meets a German inventor who has an anti-Semitic Alsatian called Adolf, and he gains joy from the use of a disabled parking badge. He also clashes with Susie over the surprise party she intends to throw for Jeff.
Highlight: Despite not having an appointment, Larry uses his cardiologist’s reception area to wait, because it’s a “waiting room”.
Episode 7 – The Ugly Section! – (9.5 out of 10)
Larry consistently keeps getting placed in the “ugly section” at the back of a restaurant. Simultaneously, he attempts to woo the widow of his friend who recently committed suicide.
Highlights: Larry asking Jane Krakowski’s character where she got the handles for her husband’s coffin. Later, Larry ruins a possible sexual liaison with her by arguing about the New York Jets. Lastly, Larry insults Susie as she should be in the restaurant “ugly section”.
Episode 8 – Elizabeth, Margaret and Larry! – (10 out of 10)
Actor, Jon Hamm, shadows Larry as he prepares to play a character like him in a film. Larry and Leon start a new business venture which initially proves profitable. Cheryl is angered when Larry spontaneously begins a relationship with her sister, Becky.
Highlights: Jon Hamm slowly turning into Larry throughout the episode, culminating in them both being ejected from a dinner party. Also, Kaitlin Olson returning as Becky and the surprising sex with Larry.
Episode 9 – Beep Panic! – (9 out of 10)
Larry strikes up a friendship with a waitress that dripped sweat into his soup. He also becomes obsessed with the liqorice at his car showroom. Meanwhile, Mocha Joe plots his own revenge using DVD film screeners.
Highlights: Leon and Larry succumb to the severe laxative effect of the liqorice in a silly bit of toilet humour.
Episode 10 – The Spite Store! – (10 out of 10)
Latte Larry’s is well and truly open, and it inspires other celebrities to open similar spite stores. Larry is irked by siren abusers and gives a job to Joey Funkhouser, but his big penis causes the store no end of issues.
Highlights: Sean Penn’s opening a spite-driven pet store. All Larry’s innovations at the coffee store ultimately lead to a very explosive downfall.
“NO GOOD?” – CONCLUSION
In preparing for this review I rewatched season 9 and watched season 10 twice. So, it’s obvious to say that I love, Curb Your Enthusiasm. Overall, I found the latest season to be a wonderful mix of old-fashioned slapstick and farce, combined with Larry David’s original and skewed vision of humanity. What was also impressive was the structural coherence of juggling so many comedy plots and situations. Plus, Larry behaves appallingly, and this is very appealing in an ever-increasingly politically correct world. Many times, throughout the season Larry is shown to be a provocative arsehole, but on occasions he very much has a valid point. Larry’s issues are very much first world problems, but because of the skilled writing and consistently high joke rate I related greatly to this season. Plus, Larry doesn’t win. His spiteful plotting and perpetual disagreements with those around him mostly fail. Indeed, ultimately, the joke is always on him.
NETFLIX REVIEW – TIGER KING: MURDER, MAYHEM AND MADNESS (2020)
Directed by: Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin
Executive Producers: Chris Smith, Fisher Stevens, Eric Goode, Rebecca Chaiklin
Cinematography: Damien Drake
Edited by: Doug Abel, Nicholas Biagetti, Dylan Hansen-Fliedner, Daniel Koehler, Geoffrey Richmond
Original Network: Netflix
“Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” Mark Twain
Personally, I love nothing more than to immerse myself in fictional worlds created by writers, showrunners and filmmakers, but sometimes it’s important to face the “truth” in storytelling. Thus, documentary filmmaking has always been a popular genre too. Having said that are documentaries actually reflecting the truth? Because the documentary genre over the years has become ultra-sophisticated and many “true” stories are not just simply filmed documents or events or interviews. Now, documentaries are often carefully constructed and mediated narratives with as much, if not more, drama and turns in their tales than fictional works. Conversely, some stories and characters are so incredible they are indeed stranger than fiction.
Netflix churns out a lot of quality and not-so high-quality content. There is an arguably scattergun approach with subscribers paying their money and taking their chances. They have of course had some big hits. The documentary Making a Murderer (2015), prestige Royalty drama, The Crown (2016 – ) and 1980’s sci-fi show Stranger Things (2016 – ) are three such shows that have become cultural phenomenon. The latest one is the docuseries Tiger King (2020); a true crime documentary centred around eccentric, to say the least, zookeeper, Joe Exotic (not his real name). Filmed in a “fly-on-the-wall” form it covers a six-year period from 2014 to 2020. The setting is a number of zoos and animal “sanctuaries” in Oklahoma, Florida and South Carolina respectively. These zoos contain some of the most dangerous animals in the world, namely humans. They also contain tigers, lions, leopards, panthers, chimpanzees, lemurs, snakes and all manner of other exotic animals. So, with larger than life people and animals on show, what could possibly go wrong?
This series presents the very worst examples of human madness, cruelty and behaviour. Firstly, I must say that there are some decent people in the show. Some of the zookeepers do display care for the animals and make it their living to protect them, however, the documentary illustrates powerfully the institutional cruelty of those individuals who breed and keep animals in cages for money. Even Carole Baskin, Joe’s bitter rival, who runs the Big Cat Rescue zoo in Tampa, Florida, and an advocate for saving these animals, did seem to make a lot of money out of it. I guess we’re all to blame in society though as we have all visited zoos and safari parks in our day. But this is not an advocate documentary for an organisation like PETA (People for Ethical Treatment of Animals), although they certainly were able to use the footage as evidence for their cause. This, ultimately, is a tabloid expose of a world containing some of the most narcissistic and insane people you could encounter. It’s car-crash-freak-show-television and I feel ashamed to say I was gripped by this zoological soap opera from start to finish.
The leading lunatic is aforementioned Joe Exotic. He is a gay, mullet-haired, gun-toting, self-promoting, country-and-western “singing”, rage-addicted polygamist. Even the greatest Hollywood screenwriter could not invent such a character. Over seven startling episodes the series charts his rise and fall from successful zookeeper to failed politician to eventually, well, I won’t give away the ending. The other characters of the series are just as dodgy. While she does seem to be doing some good, Carole Baskin, was presented as some weird ‘Mother Earth’ type who may or may not have killed her husband. Joe Exotic’s hatred of her drives the narrative and his words and actions toward her are pure malevolence. Other big cat owners such as, Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, and Joe’s former business partner, Jeff Lowe, feature prominently throughout. Doc Antle seemed the sanest of the lot and had provided animals for big Hollywood productions, however, even his lifestyle, according to the documentary, seemed to involve grooming younger women and examples of animal cruelty.
Overall, this short review merely skims the surface of what goes on in this explosive TV show. There are big cat attacks, lawsuits, deaths, murder plots, suspected suicides, drug abuse, arson, constant threats, political campaigns, federal investigations and court indictments. It is both an intense viewing spectacle and also a tragic one. The animals kept in cages are so beautiful and majestic, it is sad that their lives are one of incarceration. The crazy thing is that they were bred in captivity for profit by the likes of Joe Exotic and then sadly discarded when of no use. Tiger King (2020) presents a truth that people do not deserve this Earth and I’m ashamed to be part of the human race. On the other hand, this string of crazy characters and events make absolutely sensational television. The biggest tragedy is the animals will continue to be prisoners, while attention-seeking people profit from such cruelty.
Screenplay by Leigh Whannell – based on H. G. Wells The Invisible Man
Produced by: Jason Blum, Kylie du Fresne
Main cast: Elisabeth Moss, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Harriet Dyer, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Michael Dorman,
Music: Benjamin Wallfisch
Cinematography: Stefan Duscio
***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***
Many a work, home, pub, dinner party and school conversation has started with the following question: what would YOU do if you were invisible? Depending on the company it’s something that can descend into wild fantasy territory. Being invisible will allow you the freedom to spy and become the ultimate voyeur. You could also become a criminal and creep into places without being seen to thieve. You could be a prankster and play tricks on your friends and family. You could become a superhero, battle crime and help people. You could simply just disappear not just literally, but philosophically from society. The possibilities are endless.
H. G. Wells original novel is an absolute genre masterpiece. Arguably the most famous version was filmed in 1933 with incredible practical effects and an exceptional performance from Claude Rains. In this new version the conventional invisible scientist-goes-mad story is twisted successfully into an exhilarating horror suspense film with themes relating to toxic masculinity and abusive relationships. Here invisibility is used to control and instil fear, as the recently deceased Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) is, according to his ex-partner, Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss), targeting her from the grave.
Leigh Whannell has great experience writing and producing low-budget horror films including: Saw (2004) andInsidious (2010). His last directorial release, Upgrade (2018), was a fantastic mix of 1980’s B-movies, sci-fi and horror cinema. Building on the crowd-pleasing thrills of Upgrade, Whannell has crafted a paranoiac classic with Elisabeth Moss giving a fantastically nerve-shredding and physically adept performance. From the tense opening scene, we empathise with her desire to escape a controlling and malevolent force. Building slowly throughout the first act, Whannell’s script brilliantly picks up the pace and plots Cecilia’s descent into a living hell. Consequently, Cecilia’s anxiety reaches peak stress as no one believes she is being set up by a gas-lighting, unseen and venal monster.
It pays to see this film on the big screen with the finest sound quality available. I watched it on an IMAX screen where the sound design and Benjamin Wallfisch’s amazing score really enhance the fear-inducing visuals. How the production team made this film for a reported $7 million dollars is beyond me. Yet, Whannell is an economical and highly efficient filmmaker. His writing is lean and mean, as the script is full of fantastic set-pieces and plot reversals. Moreover, the story is very relevant, exploring the themes of the day relating to domestic abuse, depression and mental illness. However, it’s not an overbearing message movie, but rather a smart and surprising thriller.
Overall, The Invisible Man (2020) starts strongly and proceeds to deliver a series of gripping and, at times, heart-in-the-mouth cinematic moments. There are none of the usual scientific and over-expositional set-ups that can slow down such films. The visuals, sound, score and performances deliver the story most effectively. I felt like there were a few fuzzy plot moments that Whannell could have explained in more detail, however, that could have hindered the pace of the story. Finally, with Elisabeth Moss imbuing her character with resilience, energy and steel, we get an individual who will never give up. She sees through her ghosting nemesis and will fight to the last breath to prove her innocence and remain in control.
Produced by: Todd Phillips, Bradley Cooper, Emma Tillinger Koskoff
Written by Todd Phillips, Scott Silver
Based on : DC Comics’ Joker created by Bill Finger, Bob Kane & Jerry Robinson
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert DeNiro, Bill Camp, Zazie Beetz, Francis Conroy, Glen Fleshler, Brian Tyree Henry, Marc Maron etc.
Music: Hildur Guðnadóttir
Cinematography: Lawrence Sher
**** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ****
“Is it just me – or is it getting crazier out there?”
There’s no let up for poor coulrophobes. You wait so long for an evil clown and two come along in quick succession! First Pennywise hits the big screen twice. Now, Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix deliver an incendiary cinematic masterpiece, based on DC’s uber-villain, Joker.
With Marvel’s cinematic universe heroically saving the world and making Disney a lot of money in the process, everything was looking a bit bright in the comic book film world. Not anymore, because Joker (2019) brings darkness, chaos, delusions and insanity to the screen. This film doesn’t reflect a safe world full of heroes, but instead illustrates one without them or a shred of hope.
The year is 1981. The place is Gotham. The symbol of this urban disintegration will be downtrodden clown, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix). Crime and garbage ravage the city and social services budgets are being cut. Arthur struggles with his mental health, his clown work and his unwell mother (Francis Conroy). He attempts to find solace in stand-up comedy, but his psychological problems stretch to uncontrollable laughing fits, making people laugh AT him, as opposed to WITH him. He seeks potential romance with a neighbour, Sophie (Zasie Beetz), but his world begins to collapse when he loses his job and his medication is cut off. Attacked by kids on the street and bankers on the tube, Arthur is forced to fight back. But, violence begets violence, as a new, more dominant persona comes to the fore.
Joker (2019) is a bravura and risk-taking character study charting the downward spiral of both a city on the edge; and an individual losing touch with the real world. Rather than being cared for by the system, Arthur is thrown to the gutter, only to rise up with fire, violence, colour, costume and maniacal chuckling. From the mean streets of Gotham comes not calm, but social unrest and protests; not a hero but a painted villain, dancing and plotting bloody murder.
I have read that there have been complaints that the film trivialises mental health. Well, having experienced a close family member suffer mental breakdown and have a friend commit suicide due to extreme anxiety, I actually think Joker (2019) presents madness in a very truthful way. Mental health is scary, unpredictable, difficult to treat and prone to startling bursts of uncontrollable energy. It’s hard to comprehend what happens in people’s brains to make them act a certain way and this film captures that. The reason the film is scary is because mental health is scary. If it is not treated, then people can harm themselves and others. Therein lies the truth and tragedy of mental illness.
Joaquin Phoenix is absolutely incredible as Arthur Fleck/Joker. Hysterical laughter echoes and haunts the screen. Every cigarette he smokes drags nicotine anxiety into his ravaged lungs. As violent outbursts jolt and as his skinny body dances, I felt a gamut of emotions including: fear, humour, shock and sadness. Fleck’s transformation into Joker is a slow-burn trajectory and masterful acting performance. He tries to avoid violence and confrontation, but it’s drawn to him like a moth to a flame. He tries to make people laugh, but sadly only ends up hurting them. Joker is an outsider desperate to step inside and be part of society, but, even down to his unknown parentage, he is rejected at every turn.
As well as Phoenix, Todd Phillips deserves much kudos for creating an incredibly dark, but impressive cinematic experience. He is ably assisted by the startling cinematography of Lawrence Sher, who captures that gritty, paranoiac and urban look perfectly. Much praise also to Hildur Guðnadóttir, who, for me, has orchestrated the musical score of the year. Lastly, the genius of marrying cinematic classics like Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1983), with a DC comic-book super-villain is an absolute masterstroke. Indeed,Joker (2019), is one of the most memorable and compelling films of 2019. Why so serious? Watch it and discover for yourself.
Produced by: Rodrigo Texeira, Jay Van Hoy, Lourenco Sant Anna, Robert Eggers, Youree Henley
Cast: Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson
Cinematography: Jarin Blaschke
******* SPOILER FREE ********
Robert Eggers debut feature, The Witch (2015), was a startling debut and deserved the critical acclaim it received. Alas, personally, it left me cold as a story, because I felt little empathy for the characters. By the end, I was totally disconnected from the madness that ensued. Yet, while it failed as a horror film, it did have great performances from the cast and an incredible eye for period detail and language.
Obviously, a talented filmmaker such as Eggers is not going to care what I think; and quite right he is too. Building on the folklore and legends of yesteryear established in The Witch (2015), he has once again delivered a highly ambitious cinematic work on a relatively low budget with The Lighthouse (2019). Indeed, with a superbly researched screenplay full of salty dialogue, authentic locations and insane visuals, I connected way more to this than his debut film.
Shot on black-and-white 35mm with a 1: 19 aspect ratio, Eggers has left us in no doubt his intention to aim for the cinema for the purists among you. Formally though, these creative choices also force the audience into the same claustrophobic, black-hearted watery hell our characters must endure. Moreover, Eggers takes joy in oppressing his characters and the audience. TheLighthouse (2019) is a brilliant but harsh to watch. I mean I felt like I’d been working on a bloody lighthouse myself, such was my mental exhaustion by the end.
The film benefits from two incredible acting performances by Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson. Dafoe represents the experienced sea-dog, with Pattinson as the younger and more secretive, Winslow, The two men drink, eat, work, spar, clash, fart, shout, drink some more and slowly but surely begin to unravel amidst the isolation of the unforgiving rocks, crashing waves and squawking gulls. Full of incredible imagery, devilish sounds and creeping dread, ultimately, TheLighthouse (2019) is a hard film to endure, but an even harder one to forget.
“If you don’t know Robert DeNiro – he used to be an actor.” Doug Stanhope
In a recent stand-up special Beer Hall Putsch drunken, irreverent funny man Doug Stanhope does an extended routine about Jake La Motta. During the hilarious piece he refers to Raging Bull and more specifically Robert DeNiro. As the above quote suggests DeNiro’s career in the last few years has been more akin to that of a jobbing journeyman with the occasional flash of former genius thrown in.
With forgettable roles in Grudge Match (2013), Killer Elite (2011), Showtime (2002) and many more, his C.V. reads like something Steven Seagal would be hard-pushed to be proud of. He has, it seems recently, aside from a few David O. Russell films, been picking acting roles based on scheduling and a pay-cheque rather than their artistic merits. But hey who am I to worry about a man making a few quid; we all have to pay the rent!
Yet, from a craft perspective it is worth remembering DeNiro appeared in films by some of the great directors such as: Scorcese, Bertolucci, DePalma, Mann, Tarantino and Coppola. At one stage he was the greatest ever living actor and here are SIX roles to remind us of that. It was a tough choice but these are my FAVOURITE performances of, perhaps THE finest actor of a generation.
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
MEAN STREETS (1973)
Harvey Keitel is the lead character, Charlie, in this classic-early-Scorcese-urban-street-epic, but DeNiro steals every scene as the ducker-and-diver Johnny Boy. It’s a funny and violent performance containing that trademark grin, verbal dexterity and cool intensity which would become hallmarks of the young Italian’s subsequent performances. His Johnny Boy is flighty and unreliable compared to Keitel’s solid gangster-wannabe and their scenes together are a particular joy as Johnny Boy drives Charlie mad with his irresponsible nature.
TAXI DRIVER (1976)
Isolation and slow psychosis have never been so compelling in DeNiro’s portrayal of lonely anti-hero Travis Bickle. Schrader, Scorcese and DeNiro were young, edgy artists who delivered a character study which found Vietnam veteran, Bickle, trying to stay sane on the bleak, venal streets of New York. DeNiro bleeds desperation and desire for love and hope. Bickle so desperately tries to fit in with society and do right by people but he’s just too wired to achieve this socially. However, via mania and violence he finds redemption and the acknowledgement of the humanity he so desperately craves.
RAGING BULL (1980)
In terms of marrying both a physical and psychologically formidable performance then THIS is probably DeNiro’s finest role. Obviously he’s famous for putting on a shedload of weight for prize-fighting role of Jake La Motta, however, it’s not a gimmick to sell a film. No, the weight gain is part of the character’s arc as he moves from prime physical masculinity and deteriorates to a fat, useless mess of a man who has pushed all his loved ones away due to mounting paranoia and self-loathing. DeNiro designs a character who hates himself and others and whose ability to suck up punishment and pain is a boon to his boxing ability but detrimental to his sanity. In this performance DeNiro proves there is most certainly method in the madness; a stunning film for which the Italian deservedly won a Best Actor Oscar!
KING OF COMEDY (1983)
In this stunning, dark comedy of embarrassment DeNiro is the deluded stand-up comedian who is SO desperate to get a break he kidnaps a leading chat show host portrayed by the wonderfully jaded Jerry Lewis. DeNiro is brilliant at all forms of madness whether it be: psychos, paranoiacs or the obsessively maladjusted such as hapless Pupkin. I can identify with the character though as he is just so desperate to gain fame his persistence, if not his methods, are actually something to be admired. Not known for his comic roles generally, DeNiro is fantastically funny with his skippy walk, bad dress sense, ticks, delivery and imaginary conversations with the celebrities he so badly longs to work aside. You know what too: his stand-up comedy isn’t actually that bad either. Overall, stalking and obsession have never been so funny or painful.
MIDNIGHT RUN (1988)
What! No Godfather II! No Deerhunter (1978)! No Heat (1995)! And no Casino (1995). Not trying to be contrary but I love this film. It is a rollicking road movie and concerns ulcerated bail-bondsmen, Jack Walsh (DeNiro), who must take a fastidious accountant (Grodin) on a “midnight run” to ensure he testifies against a violent gang boss (Dennis Farina). Obviously, as this is a buddy movie the two “opposite” characters bicker and fight over the course of the story but eventually settle their differences and find a common bond. The pace never lets up as the two “rivals” use every form of transport possible to get across country and it was great to see DeNiro in a less serious role cutting loose with a witty and zinging script. DeNiro brings a world weary pain and cynical humour to a great genre character film.
As far back as I can remember this has always been my favourite gangster film. Scorcese, Pileggi, Pesci, Liotta and DeNiro were all on fire here in this epic ensemble character story focussing on the rags-to-riches-to-rags-again-narrative of mobster Henry Hill. Yes, Liotta is the lead and Pesci won the Oscar but DeNiro steals pretty much all his scenes as Jimmy “The Gent” Conway. His characterisation is of a charming man who is in fact a bloodthirsty yet charismatic career criminal. DeNiro’s arc shows a man graduating from lorry-jacks to masterminding one of the biggest robberies ever in American history before descending into paranoia and an aging gangster always looking over his shoulder.
DeNiro would give other commanding or at least interesting performances later in his career, for example: Cape Fear (1991), Casino (1995), Heat (1995), Everybody’s Fine (2009), Jackie Brown (1997) and Silver Linings Playbook (2012) but his CV since Goodfellas is, if I’m honest, very patchy. So let us not forget that he has provided some of the most memorable celluloid performances ever. Yes! I’m talking to you!