Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Raging Bull (dir by Martin Scorsese)

This is not my favorite Martin Scorsese film.

I feel like I have to make that clear from the start because, for many people, this is their favorite Scorsese film.  Though it may have gotten mixed reviews when it was first released, it is now regularly described as being the high point of Scorsese’s fabled collaboration with Robert De Niro.  This was also the first film that Scorsese made with not only Joe Pesci but at also Frank Vincent as well.  (In fact, the whole scene in Goodfellas where Pesci and De Niro nearly stomp Vincent to death is a bit of an homage to a scene in Raging Bull.  Of course, Vincent got his revenge on Pesci in Casino.)  This film earned Martin Scorsese his first Oscar nomination for best director and it’s regularly cited as being one of the greatest film ever made.

Even more importantly, 1980’s Raging Bull has been described — by none other than the director himself — as the film that saved Martin Scorsese’s life.  Like a lot of his contemporaries, Scorsese got hooked on cocaine during the 70s.  He even nearly died of an overdose.  De Niro, who has been on Scorsese to direct Raging Bull for years, visited him in the hospital, brought him the script, told him to clean up his act, and make the film.  When Scorsese started to work on the film, he assumed it would be his last.  Whether Scorsese thought he would be dead or if he just thought he’d retire, I’m not sure.  Still, if Raging Bull had not rejuvenated Scorsese’s love of cinema, he wouldn’t have subsequently directed some of the greatest films ever made.  So, regardless of anything else, we have to be thankful that De Niro kept pushing Scorsese to direct Raging Bull.

The film itself is a biopic of Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro), a brutal boxer who destroys opponents in the ring while destroying everyone who loves him outside of the ring.  He’s the type of guy who takes joy in destroying one opponent’s face just because his wife, Vicki (Cathy Moriarty), said that the guy was handsome.  When he’s forced to take a dive in order to win a title shot, he sobs in the locker room and it’s as close to being sympathetic as Jake gets.  The rest of the movie, he spends his time terrorizing his wife and taking out his frustrations on his loyal brother, Joey (Joe Pesci).

Most boxing films tend to present boxers as being lovable lugs, guys who might not be too smart but who have found the one thing that they’re good at.  (Think of the pre-Creed Rocky films.)  In Raging Bull, there’s nothing lovable about Jake.  He’s an animal, an angry man who fights because that’ the only way that he knows how to relate to the world.  He’s the type of guy who spends all of his time looking for an excuse to get mad and throw a punch.  The most dangerous thing you can do is make a joke in the presence of Jake LaMotta because, as portrayed in this film, he’s such an idiot that his reaction will always be to see it as a provocation.  From beginning to end, he’s a loathsome figure but the young De Niro was such a charismatic actor that you keep watching because — much like Vicki — you keep hoping that you’ll see some glimmer of humanity and some chance of redemption.

Reportedly, Scorsese and De Niro feel that the end of Raging Bull does provide Jake with some redemption.  Having lost everyone that ever loved him, an overweight Jake runs a sleazy nightclub and makes a fool of himself reciting dramatic monologues.  The production actually shut down so that De Niro could overeat and gain all the extra weight and it is shocking to see him go from being a handsome, athletic man to a fat slob whose shirt can’t even cover his belly.  No longer a boxer, Jake is now a faded D-list celebrity.  Now that he can’t fight and he can’t make money for the mob and the gamblers, no one cares about him.  That’s unfortunate for Jake but I have to say that I’ve never seen much redemption in Jake’s fate.  If anything, I was just happy that Vicki finally got away from him.

Raging Bull is a film that’s easier to admire than to actually like.  It’s impossible not to appreciate the black-and-white cinematography or the performances of De Niro, Pesci, and Cathy Moriarty.  As directed by Scorsese, the boxing scenes are horrifying brutal, to the extent that you find yourself wondering how anyone could enjoy the sport.  (When a spray of Jake’s blood hits the people in the first row, you can’t help but think that they’re all getting what they deserved.)  That said, the film’s never been a favorite of mine because, as well done as it is, Jake LaMotta never seems like he’s worth spending two hours with.

Obviously, a lot of people disagree with me on that.  Raging Bull received 8 Oscar nominations.  Robert De Niro won Best Actor.  Raging Bull, itself, lost Best Picture to Robert Redford’s Ordinary People.

Stallone Acts: Cop Land (1997, directed by James Mangold)

Garrison, New Jersey is a middle class suburb that is known as Cop Land.  Under the direction of Lt. Ray Donlan (Harvey Keitel), several NYPD cops have made their home in Garrison, financing their homes with bribes that they received from mob boss Tony Torillo (Tony Sirico).  The corrupt cops of Garrison, New Jersey live, work, and play together, secure in the knowledge that they can do whatever they want because Donlan has handpicked the sheriff.

Sheriff Freddy Heflin (Sylvester Stallone) always dreamed of being a New York cop but, as the result of diving into icy waters to save a drowning girl, Freddy is now deaf in one ear.  Even though he knows that they are all corrupt, Freddy still idolizes cops like Donlan, especially when Donlan dangles the possibility of pulling a few strings and getting Freddy an NYPD job in front of him.  The overweight and quiet Freddy spends most of his time at the local bar, where he’s the subject of constant ribbing from the “real” cops.  Among the cops, Freddy’s only real friend appears to be disgraced narcotics detective, Gary Figgis (Ray Liotta).

After Donlan’s nephew, Murray Babitch (Michael Rapaport), kills two African-American teenagers and then fakes his own death to escape prosecution, Internal Affairs Lt. Moe Tilden (Robert De Niro) approaches Freddy and asks for his help in investigating the corrupt cops of Garrison.  At first, Freddy refuses but he is soon forced to reconsider.

After he became a star, the idea that Sylvester Stallone was a bad actor because so universally accepted that people forgot that, before he played Rocky and Rambo, Stallone was a busy and respectable character actor.  Though his range may have been limited and Stallone went through a period where he seemed to always pick the worst scripts available, Stallone was never as terrible as the critics often claimed.  In the 90s, when it became clear that both the Rocky and the Rambo films had temporarily run their course, Stallone attempted to reinvent his image.  Demolition Man showed that Stallone could laugh at himself and Cop Land was meant to show that Stallone could act.

For the most part, Stallone succeeded.  Though there are a few scenes where the movie does seem to be trying too hard to remind us that Freddy is not a typical action hero, this is still one of Sylvester Stallone’s best performances.  Stallone plays Freddy as a tired and beaten-down man who knows that he’s getting one final chance to prove himself.  It helps that Stallone’s surrounded by some of the best tough guy actors of the 90s.  Freddy’s awkwardness around the “real” cops is mirrored by how strange it initially is to see Stallone acting opposite actors like Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, and Ray Liotta.  Cop Land becomes not only about Freddy proving himself as a cop but Stallone proving himself as an actor.

The film itself is sometimes overstuffed.  Along with the corruption investigation and the search for Murray Babitch, there’s also a subplot about Freddy’s unrequited love for Liz Randone (Annabella Sciorra) and her husband’s (Peter Berg) affair with Donlan’s wife (Cathy Moriarty).  There’s enough plot here for a Scorsese epic and it’s more than Cop Land‘s 108-minute run time can handle.  Cop Land is at its best when it concentrates on Freddy and his attempt to prove to himself that he’s something more than everyone else believes.  The most effective scenes are the ones where Freddy quietly drinks at the local tavern, listening to Gary shoot his mouth off and stoically dealing with the taunts of the people that he’s supposed to police.  By the time that Freddy finally stands up for himself, both you and he have had enough of everyone talking down to him.  The film’s climax, in which a deafened Freddy battles the corrupt cops of Garrison, is an action classic.

Though the story centers on Stallone, Cop Land has got a huge ensemble cast.  While it’s hard to buy Janeane Garofalo as a rookie deputy, Ray Liotta and Robert Patrick almost steal the film as two very different cops.  Interestingly, many members of the cast would go on to appear on The Sopranos.  Along with Sirico, Sciorra, Patrick, and Garofalo, keep an eye out for Frank Vincent, Arthur Nascarella, Frank Pelligrino, John Ventimiglia, Garry Pastore,  and Edie Falco in small roles.

Cop Land was considered to be a box office disappointment when it was released and Stallone has said that the film’s failure convinced people that he was just an over-the-hill action star and that, for eight years after it was released, he couldn’t get anyone to take his phone calls.  At the time, Cop Land‘s mixed critical and box office reception was due to the high expectations for both the film and Stallone’s performance.  In hindsight, it’s clear that Cop Land was a flawed but worthy film and that Stallone’s performance remains one of his best.


A Movie A Day #252: The Death Collector (1976, directed by Ralph De Vito)

Jerry Bolanti (Joe Cortese) is a cocky loud-mouth who has just returned to New Jersey after serving a prison sentence.  Jerry needs a work so a mid-level gangster named Tony (Lou Criscuolo) hires Jerry as a debt collector.  The problem is that Jerry is just not very good at his job.  His attempt to collect money from Bernie Feldshuh (Frank Vincent) leads to Bernie hiring a legendary hitman (Keith Davis) to kill Jerry.  Despite working with two experienced enforcers, Joe (Joe Pesci) and Serge (Bobby Alto), Jerry’s next job is just as unsuccessful and leads to even more unnecessary deaths.  Tony starts to wonder if maybe he made a mistake giving a job to Jerry and, unfortunately, no one simply gets fired from the Mafia.

A low-budget and nihilistic film, The Death Collector occupies a strange place in film history.  Though it was largely ignored when it was first released, one of the few people who did see it was actor Robert De Niro.  De Niro brought the film to the attention of Martin Scorsese, who was casting Raging Bull at the time.  Both Joe Pesci and Frank Vincent made their film debuts in The Death Collector and, after watching the movie, Scorsese cast both of them in Raging Bull.

The rest is history:

In Raging Bull, Pesci beats up Vincent.

In Goodfellas, Pesci kills Vincent.

In Casino, Vincent finally gets to kill Pesci.

If not for The Death Collector, Frank Vincent would never have told Joe Pesci to “get your fucking shinebox.”  If not for The Death Collector, Joe Pesci would never have thrown Frank Vincent in that trunk.  It all started with The Death Collector.

As for the film itself, The Death Collector was filmed on location in New Jersey and it occasionally has a raw and intense grittiness but it suffers because there’s never any reason to care about Jerry.  He starts the movie as an asshole and he ends the movie as an asshole and Joe Cortese’s bland performance fails to make Jerry into a compelling antihero.  The Death Collector works best whenever Vincent and Pesci are on-screen.  Pesci’s performance is slightly toned down version of the hyped-up maniacs that he became best known for playing while Vincent shows that, even in his first film, he was already a master at playing slightly ridiculous tough guys.

The Death Collector can also be found under the title, Family Enforcer.  It’s been released on DVD by several companies, all of which claim that the film “stars” Joe Pesci.  My copy has a picture of Pesci that was lifted from 8 Heads In A Duffel Bag on the cover.

Film Review: Casino (dir by Martin Scorsese)

(Minor spoilers below)

Casino, Martin Scorsese’s epic, Las Vegas-set film from 1995, is one of my favorite films of all time.  It seems to show up on cable every other week and, whenever I see that it’s playing, I always make it a point to catch at least a few minutes.

Casino opens with veteran Las Vegas bookie Ace Rothstein (played by Robert De Niro) getting into a car.  He starts the engine and the car explodes.  The rest of the movie is an extended flashback as both Ace and his friend and eventual rival Nicky (Joe Pesci) explain how Ace went from being the most powerful man in Vegas to getting blown up in his car.

We are shown how Ace was originally sent to Vegas by a group of mobsters who are headquartered in the far less flamboyant town of Kansas City.  Ace keeps an eye on the city for the bosses and, as long as the money keep coming in, they leave Ace alone to do whatever he wants.  When Ace isn’t bribing government officials (including one particularly sleazy state senator who was reportedly based on future U.S. Sen. Harry Reid) and breaking the fingers of the unlucky gamblers who have been caught trying to cheat the casino, he’s busy falling in love with the beautiful prostitute Ginger (Sharon Stone, who was nominated for Best Actress for her work in this film).  Though Ginger warns Ace that she doesn’t love him and is still hung up on her manipulative pimp Lester Diamond (James Woods, who is hilariously sleazy), Ginger and Ace still get married.

Everything’s perfect except for the fact that Ace’s old friend Nicky (Joe Pesci) has also moved to Vegas.  As opposed to the calm and low-key Ace, Nicky has a violent temper and soon, he starts drawing unwanted attention to both himself and Ace.  When Ace attempts to control Nicky, Nicky responds by turning on his friend and soon, the two of them are fighting an undeclared war for control of the city.  Meanwhile, the bosses in Kansas City are starting to notice that less and less money is making its way back to them from Las Vegas…

There are so many things that I love about Casino that I don’t even know where to begin.

First off, I love the film’s glamour.  I love the way that the film celebrates the glitz of Las Vegas, presenting it as an oasis of exuberant life sitting in the middle of a barren desert that, we’re told, is full of dead people.  I love seeing the tacky yet stylish casinos.  I love seeing the inside of Ace’s mansion.  And Ginger’s clothes are just to die for!

I love that Scorsese’s signature visual style perfectly keeps up with and comments on the natural flamboyance of Las Vegas.  Consider how the film starts, with the shadowy form of Ace Rothstein being tossed through the air and then descending back down to Earth.  Consider the image of Ace standing in the middle of the desert and being submerged within a thick cloud of dust as Nicky’s car speeds away from him.  Consider how Scorsese’s camera glides through the casino, letting us see both the people who cheat and the people who are watching them cheat.  Consider Nicky standing outside of his jewelry stare and freezing the movement of the camera with his reptilian glare.  Consider the scene of cocaine being snorted up a straw, seemingly filmed from inside the straw.  Casino is a film full of the type of images that all directors promise but few ever actually deliver.

I love that Casino is built around a brilliant lead performance from Robert De Niro.  De Niro gives a performance that mixes both tragedy and comedy.  My favorite De Niro moment comes about halfway through the film, when Ace finds himself hosting a wonderfully tacky cable access show called Aces High. Ace interviews “celebrities” like Frankie Avalon, introduces the Ace Rothstein Dancers, and even finds the time to do some juggling.  De Niro makes Ace into an endearing and awkward character in these scenes, a permanent outsider who has finally managed to become something of a star.

It’s easy to compare Casino to Scorsese’s other classic mix of gangster film and social satire, 1990’s Goodfellas.  Both films feature De Niro, Pesci, and Frank Vincent.  (In a nice piece of irony, Casino features Vincent getting a little revenge after being attacked twice by Joe Pesci in two different Scorsese films.)  Both films are based on nonfiction books by Nicholas Pileggi.  Both films feature nonstop music playing on the soundtrack.  Both films feature multiple narrators who explain to us how the day-to-day operations of the  Mafia are conducted.  When Scorsese shows us Ace and Ginger’s wedding day, it feels almost like a scene-for-scene recreation of Henry Hill’s wedding in Goodfellas.

At the same time, there are a few key differences between Goodfellas and Casino.  Whereas Goodfellas was all about being a low-level cog in the Mafia, Casino is about management.  Casino is about the guys who the Goodfellas made  rich.  Goodfellas was about the drudgery of everyday life whereas Casino is about the glitz and the glamour promised by the fantasy world of Las Vegas.  Whereas Goodfellas was almost obsessively anti-romantic, Casino is a gangster film with heart.  No matter what else you might say about him as a character, Ace’s love for both Ginger and Las Vegas is real.  On a similar note, when Nicky turns against Ace, it’s because his feelings have been hurt.  In the end, Ace and Nicky come across like children who have, temporarily, been given the keys to the world’s biggest playground.

Casino is a glossy, flamboyant film that literally opens with a bang and ends on a note of melancholy and loss.  Not only is Ace reduced to being an anonymous old man working out of a nondescript office but our last two views of Vegas are of the old casinos being dynamited and an army of overweight tourists emerging from the airport like the unstoppable zombies from Dawn of the Dead.  This, then, is Scorsese’s view of the apocalypse. The world isn’t destroyed by a cataclysm but instead by an invasion of terminal middle American blandness.