The War with Grandpa

Cheech Marin, Robert De Niro, Jane Seymour and Christopher Walken in a huddle

 

In 2016 Robert De Niro starred in Dirty Grandpa, as the titular disgusting (in lots of ways, but mostly sexually) senior giving uptight grandson Zac Efron lessons in letting it all hang out.

It was a funny film, though a 5.9 rating on the imdb (as I type) suggests that not everyone loved it. I didn’t love it either, but a few good gags and a suggestion that even the oldies like to part-ay is, in these frigid times, enough for me.

The War with Grandpa was made one year later and then sat on a shelf for three more, thanks to the Harvey Weinstein scandal (the Weinsteins were set to distribute it). It’s quite a diffrerent proposition, a family comedy with a plot contained pretty much in the title – Grandpa (De Niro) goes to live with his daughter (Uma Thurman) and family, causing her son Peter (Oakes Fegley) to be ejected from his room so Grandpa can have it. Peter is relocated to the attic, where rats, spiders and what have you lurk. He is not happy and declares war on Grandpa. Grandpa, forced to abandon listening to mawkish 1940s music (Hollywood still not being able to accept that it’s boomers who are now the oldies and 1960s music would be more appropriate), declares war back.

It’s a guerrilla war of escalating tit-for-tat – Peter switches foam sealant for grandpa’s shaving foam, grandpa responds by removing all the screws from Peter’s bed so it collapses when he bounces on to it. Grandpa doctors Peter’s homework. Peter loosens the heads on Grandpa’s golf clubs. A python is let loose at one point. But it’s an honourable war, with Peter and Grandpa swearing to keep this between themselves, so the rest of the family don’t find out (and also conveniently allowing the film to continue).

 

Robert De Niro and Oakes Fegley
Grandpa and Peter enjoy a momentary pause in the hostilities

 

That’s about it, plotwise – they skirmish, practical jokes and physical comedy abound. Fleshing things out a touch are Peter’s schoolfriends, a nerdy bunch who are plagued by a school bully crying out for comeuppance. Grandpa also has friends, played by Christopher Walken, Cheech Marin and – once Grandpa’s recruited her from a local supermarket – Jane Seymour.

It is quite a starry cast and it doesn’t leave much space for Rob Riggle as Peter’s dad. Riggle mugs gamely to camera, making the best of being a virtual unknown in a sea of names, but actually he’s the key to the whole thing. Because what we’re really watching is an updated version of a 1960s Disney live-action comedy featuring smart kids, mild jeopardy, and a good-natured but ineffectual parent (Riggle aka the Dickless Disney Dad) whose job is to act as a catch-up sounding board.

Everything about it is also 1960s Disney Family Movie – its bright looks, the way the family interacts (Laura Marano as the slightly older daughter interested in boys, for example), a game of dodgeball between the seniors and juniors that doesn’t result in a shattered pelvis for any of the oldies, and the sort of humour that’s come out of a tin marked “hoary old standbys”. At one point grandpa grabs a ladder outdoors and climbs up it to fix some party lights up near the guttering. Is the ladder going to slowly swing backwards away from the house with grandpa gamely clinging on and making “Oh-oh-oh-oh-OOOH” noises? Of course it is. Is grandpa going to be seriously injured? Of course not.

Don’t look too carefully and you’ll not notice that the oldies are a bit creaky, or that Marin and Seymour don’t have that much to do, nor does the slightly better used Walken for that matter. But isn’t it great to see them?

Though never a gut-buster, it’s extremely good natured, and relentlessly so, at pretty much every level. Over the end credits is footage of the cast and crew all dancing on set and they do seem to be having a great time. One other plus – De Niro has finally realised that his downturned-mouth gurning isn’t the great comedy motherlode he clearly once thought it was. I think I spotted it only once. Instead De Niro tries acting. He’s pretty good at it.

 

 

The War with Grandpa – watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

Mean Streets

Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel in Mean Streets

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

12 May

 

Exile on Main Street released, 1972

On this day in 1972, one of the cornerstone rock albums of all time was released. Exile on Main St was the Rolling Stones follow-up to Sticky Fingers and the first album they had produced since extricating themselves from their contract with manager Allen Klein. The Stones had recently become tax exiles from the UK – and recorded much of the album in the south of France, at a villa Keith Richards was renting. Richards was a heavy user of heroin at the time, and his villa became a hub for visiting fellow devotees – country singer Gram Parsons and author William Burroughs were among those who turned up to shoot up. Much of it written while laying down sessions for Sticky Fingers, the album has the syncopated swagger and blues lope that the Stones had made their own. It is in many respects the classic Stones record, forming, along with the previous two releases – Sticky Fingers and Let It Bleed – the high point of the band’s output. The band would never be this good again.

 

 

 

Mean Streets (1973, dir: Martin Scorsese)

One of the immediate realisations, on watching Mean Streets again decades after it hit the unsuspecting streets of criticdom, is how cheap it looks. Written by Scorsese and Mardik Martin in a car in the locations it would be shot in, and focusing on two punks in New York’s Little Italy, its low budget means it doesn’t have the gloss Scorsese has since become associated with. He’d been bubbling under for a few years by 1973, but this is the film that shot Scorsese to dominance, the one that confirmed the promise of Who’s That Knocking at My Door. It didn’t do Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro any harm either. The other thing about re-watching it all these years later – how young these two main actors looked, how in need of a few good dinners.
The seat-of-the-pants looks and lean features of its stars work to the film’s advantage, though, because it’s a movie about being cheap – being a two-bit hustler, a cut-price Romeo, a bottom-feeding extortioner for the Mafia. Keitel plays the fairly useless collector hoping to move up the ranks, De Niro is his childhood friend, a dangerous and unpredictable little toughie who seems to have learnt most of his mannerisms from half-remembered Jimmy Cagney movies. They are chalk and cheese these two – Keitel’s Charlie is useless and sensitive and overburdened by a sense of responsibility; De Niro’s Johnny Boy is violent, charming and unpredictable. Mean Streets essentially follows these two through the bars, pool halls and restaurants of Little Italy, waiting for something to snap, which of course it will. And let’s not forget the church (or the Church, if you prefer) because Charlie’s guilt is a key driver – over the black woman he dances with and wants to date but can’t because she’s black; over the epileptic sister of Johnny Boy who he secretly loves but can’t date because she’s marked as damaged goods; over the family business, extortion; over the fact that he can’t stick to the Commandments; over the fact that he can’t be himself. In 1973 this film was the shizzle – lots of it handheld, some of it slo-mo, lit in exaggerated colours to indicate psychology, with a soundtrack that used actual real hit music (the Stones, Eric Clapton and the Miracles larding a track full of operatic favourites) because Scorsese couldn’t afford a soundtrack, but also because it fits. This soundtrack business is normal these days but then it was revolutionary, as was the whole film, especially the way it depicts characters who seem to have taken the conscious decision to behave as if they are the star of their own B movie. In many ways it is the ground zero of modern film-making – without the elliptical dialogue, bravura editing, expressionistic camera and grungy milieu of Mean Streets what, for instance, would Tarantino look like?

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • De Niro and Keitel
  • Scorsese’s real debut (forget Boxcar Bertha)
  • The great soundtrack
  • Look out for a cameo by Scorsese himself

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Mean Streets – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Wag the Dog

Robert De Niro, Anne Heche and Dustin Hoffman in Wag the Dog

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

26 January

 

 

President Clinton denies “sexual relations” with Monica Lewinsky, 1998

On this day in 1998, a serving president of the United States responded to allegations that he had had sex with a woman other than his wife. “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Monica Lewinsky” said Bill Clinton at the end of a White House press conference, with his wife standing beside him. Unfortunately for Clinton, there had been what most people would call a sexual relationship, and Lewinsky had a blue dress stained with the president’s semen to prove it. Later in the year, boxed into a corner, Clinton would admit that he had had an “improper physical relationship” and a relationship that was “not appropriate”. However he still maintained he had not had “sexual relations”. It appeared, on closer questioning, that Clinton considered “sexual relations” hadn’t happened because he had not had contact with Lewinsky’s “genitalia, anus, groin, breast, inner thigh or buttocks.” In other words giving oral sex was “sexual relations” but receiving oral sex was not.

 

 

 

Wag the Dog (1997, dir: Barry Levinson)

After the underwhelming overhyped appearance of 1970s film legends Al Pacino and Robert De Niro “together for the first time” in Heat in 1995, it actually fell to director Barry Levinson to engineer an altogether more satisfying though similarly stellar, similarly 1970s collision with this pairing of De Niro and Dustin Hoffman. Working off a smart, cynical script by David Mamet and Hilary Henkin, Wag the Dog stalks satirically through the story of a US president caught with his trousers down just a few days before election day. Moving quickly to avert a disaster, a White House aide (Anne Heche) calls in tweedy spin doctor Conrad Brean (De Niro), all beard and reassuring avuncularity, who suggests they cook up a crisis in a foreign land no one cares about (hello Albania), invite the President to rattle his sabre, before moving swiftly to a resolution of said conflict, and a boost in the opinion polls. Brean then co-opts Hollywood producer Stanley Motss (Hoffman) to stage-manage the entire phoney event – from commissioning a hokey song by Willie Nelson, to directing the “rescue” of a US military man supposedly held captive by those dastardly Albanians. And together – the wonk feeding the press with stories, the producer supplying the visuals – they proceed to wag the dog, public opinion. It’s surprisingly easily done, according to Mamet and Henkin, who milk the whole concept till the teat is flapping, then squeeze it a little more. The same can’t be said for Hoffman and De Niro, who bring just the right amount of screwball zip to roles that could easily go flat, Hoffman the permatanned Hollywood pro whose every production is essentially about himself, De Niro the trilby-wearing fixer with a bloodline going back to Machiavelli. It was all shot in just 29 days, and on a comparatively tiny budget. You could probably knock out 30 such films for one Michael Bay production. If anyone’s listening…

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman on screen together for the first time
  • The acerbic script
  • The “it could never happen, ooh it just did” scenario
  • Great support from the likes of Kirsten Dunst, William H Macy, Denis Leary and Woody Harrelson

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Wag the Dog – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Hide and Seek

Dakota Fanning in Hide and Seek

 

 

After Godsend and Meet the Fockers, Robert De Niro continues bumping along the bottom with this sub-Sixth Sense frightener. He plays the new widower with a ten-year-old traumatised daughter (Dakota Fanning) whose imaginary friend Charlie starts muscling in on the domestic action. Is Charlie a manifestation of the daughter’s loss? Or of her antagonistic feelings towards the women (Famke Janssen, Elisabeth Shue) who are floating around her newly available dad? Or is he just a malevolent spirit found lurking at the back of the Exorcist cupboard? Director John Polson and writer Ari Schlossberg keep us guessing with Kubrickian glides and Shyamalanian plot turns that suggest more than they deliver. Ultimately, Hide and Seek reveals itself to be a horror film that’s seen a lot of 1970s horror films, which might do it for you but not for me. De Niro, meanwhile, trousers the paycheck while Dakota Fanning acts him right off the screen.

© Steve Morrissey 2005

 

Hide and Seek – at Amazon

 

 

 

The Score

Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, The Score

 

 

Frank Oz is apparently a bit sniffy about being described as the man who used to be Miss Piggy. Here he directs Robert De Niro, Marlon Brando and Ed Norton in a one-last-heist movie and discovers that big hitters aren’t quite so easy to fist as a porker made of felt.

Bob, Marlon and Ed play, respectively, a jazz-loving master thief hoping to go out on a financial high, his lispingly effeminate fence and the cocky wannabe eager to learn at the master’s feet. A wasted Angela Bassett plays De Niro’s girlfriend. (Well, not entirely wasted. At least the producers got to tick the boxes marked “female” and “black”.)

We’re in the middle of a run of heist movies right now – Blow, The Heist, Ocean’s Eleven, Swordfish are all in theatres or on the way. And in every one of them there will be a point when the criminal mastermind outlines the plan to his waiting accomplices, starting with the line “Gentlemen, I think we know why we’re here” or its equivalent. You know, the bit where we’re told what’s meant to happen, so we can sit back and watch it all unfold, or not. The Score seems to think it’s that sort of film.

But. In a heist movie you root for the felons and marvel at their mission impossible. In The Score this never happens. Partly because the heist scenes are too long-winded, but mostly because Oz lets his Method Giants get away with flatulent “improv” scenes in which Bob mumbles, Marlon pretends not to be Mr Creosote and Ed hovers at the edges like the cloakroom boy at the eunuchs orgy. Which only leaves the minor characters for Oz to direct. Watch them closely. The bizarre faces, the funny voices, the tendency to wisecrack and look into the wings. And suddenly you realise with delicious irony that the director who now barely mentions the Henson years on his CV has given us Muppet Movie: The Heist.

© Steve Morrissey 2001

 

The Score – at Amazon

 

 

Cape Fear

Robert De Niro as Max Cady in Cape Fear

Robert Mitchum as Max Cady in Cape Fear

It’s compare and contrast time. Max Cady, a psychopath recently out of stir after a long stretch for rape, sets out to terrorise lawyer Sam Bowden who he believes withheld information about his case at the trial which resulted in him going down. The original, directed by cult British director J. Lee Thompson in 1962, starred Robert Mitchum as the avenging psycho (a role he’d perfected in 1955’s Night Of The Hunter) and Gregory Peck as the apparently decent lawyer. Both turn up again in cameos in Martin Scorsese’s remake, in which things aren’t quite so clear cut. This time around Bowden (now played by Nick Nolte) is a lousy lawyer, and a philandering husband to boot, and Cady (Robert De Niro) isn’t just bad, he’s positively evil. The later version amps up the sex, too. Remember the infamous scene where Bowden’s daughter (Juliette Lewis) sucks the finger of Max Cady in the empty school theatre? And of course there’s Scorsese’s wham-bam hurricane-tossed ending. But sex, a big budget and lots of special effects to one side, the consensus seems to have it that Thompson’s is the better film, that drama as stormy as this works best when set in an age of innocence. As well as an elemental good versus evil thrust, Thompson also has Bernard Herrmann’s jangly score to help him along too, plus his instinct for the pace of a scene. Scorsese is, to be fair to him, after something more nuanced. His isn’t a clear-cut world of good v evil – everyone has done something that stinks in his Cape Fear. But does his finessing of moral positions make for a more satisfying, more humane drama, or a less dynamic film? Or both? Coming one year after Goodfellas Scorsese’s Cape Fear was fighting not just Thompson’s film but his own reputation.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

Cape Fear (1962) – at Amazon

Cape Fear (1991) – at Amazon

 

Meet The Parents

Poor Photoshop skills add a little extra to the lie-detector scene from Meet the Parents

 

 

The notion of “upstaging” someone comes from the theatre. If you as an actor walk upstage, away from the auditorium, you force the person you’re addressing to turn their back on the audience. The audience can’t see the actor’s face, it can’t hear him/her that well either. It drives actors crazy. It’s a harder thing to nail down on film, but it’s something Robert De Niro is great at, especially when a comedian is involved. In Meet the Parents the funnyman in question is Ben Stiller, playing the poor sap back to “meet the parents” of his intended (Teri Polo). De Niro plays Jack Byrnes, the mutha of a father, subjecting Stiller’s character, Greg, to the sort of weekend that would have you waking up sweating for the rest of your life (“I have nipples, Greg, do you think you could milk me?”). De Niro the actor, meanwhile, is putting Stiller through something similar, the same sly wringer he used on Charles Grodin in Midnight Run, Jerry Lewis in King of Comedy, and Billy Crystal in Analyze This. It’s become a standard line against De Niro that his later work relies too heavily on mannerism – he’s acting rather than reacting. But watching him raise his game is always fascinating (Jennifer Lawrence forced him into doing it in Silver Linings Playbook). So sit back, enjoy the humour, but most of all watch the tussle as De Niro deploys every tic, gurn and volcanic pause in the book, utterly refusing to be outdone in a comedy by some wiseguy who tells jokes for a living.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

Meet the Parents – at Amazon