Bobby’s World: Raging Bull

Originally posted on Midwest Film Journal

When Robert De Niro was given a copy of Jake LaMotta’s autobiography Raging Bull: My Story from the boxer himself in the early 1970s, it came with a personalized inscription. LaMotta made it out to “the only actor in the world that could play my crazy ‘whacked out’ life and make it come alive again,” words that would seemingly resonate with De Niro as he read the memoir while filming The Godfather Part II. Taken with the pugilist’s story, he went to Martin Scorsese, who had recently directed the actor in Mean Streets, with the idea to turn the book into a film. Uninterested in making a sports picture, Scorsese turned it down several times, until parallels with the filmmaker’s personal life brought him back to the idea. The box office failure of New York, New York in 1977 is said to have contributed to Scorsese’s subsequent cocaine overdose, an incident that left him shaken and ready to tell LaMotta’s tragic story of self-destruction at last.

Spanning between the years of 1941 to 1964, Raging Bull follows middleweight fighter Jake LaMotta (De Niro) from promising up-and-comer to burned-out club owner. His younger brother Joey (Joe Pesci) helps manage his career, talking Jake through his setbacks while trying to introduce the possibility of taking the help of mobster Salvy Batts (Frank Vincent) for a title shot. While Jake is a formidable force inside the ring, he seems utterly lost when he steps out of the ropes into the real world. Though he’s already married, he strikes up a friendship with 15-year-old Vickie (Cathy Moriarty) and leaves his wife for her years later. Their happiness is short-lived, as Jake’s jealousy and sexual insecurities perpetually get the best of him and eventually lead him to violently alienate himself from his friends and family.

De Niro, of course, has countless indelible film performances but his work in Raging Bull feels like the Citizen Kane of the actor’s unforgettable roles. Like Orson Welles in that film, De Niro undergoes a physical transformation with the help of makeup and prosthetics to demonstrate the passing of time but he famously took it further than that. It’s reported that De Niro gained approximately 60 pounds to accurately recreate the paunch that LaMotta procured later in his life after he no longer had to make weight for matches. To further replicate LaMotta’s appearance, makeup artist Mike Westmore crafted a nose mold whose crooked disfigurement reflected years of abuse at the hands of various boxing gloves. These facial fittings would also allow for the required fake blood to be squirted from De Niro’s cheeks and mouth for the close-ups inside the ring.

The performance obviously extends far past appearance and the psychological complexity with which De Niro is able to imbue LaMotta is one of the largest reasons Raging Bull comes across as much more of a character study than a typical boxing movie. From his first scene with Joey, Jake expresses lament for his “little girl’s hands” and, in a misguided attempt to reinstate his masculinity, goads Joey to hit him in the face repeatedly. When taken with Jake’s last interaction in the film with Joey, a desperate attempt by the former to reconcile with the latter, we see how it’s impossible for Jake to separate his life in the ring from life outside it. The way that Jake forces an overly-long hug on Joey notably resembles how two fighters would clinch in the middle of a boxing bout. For Jake, even a loving embrace mimics hand-to-hand combat strategy.

Romantic relationships add a layer of sexual anxiety to De Niro’s performance that make it even more difficult to watch but nevertheless impressive from an artistic perspective. Jake first meets Vickie behind a chain link fence, their vision of one another obscured and the distance between them inevitable. She is a prize that he can’t help but fight to win. De Niro is understandably at his most charming in this scene, a trait he lends to many of his film performances, but there’s an obvious undercurrent of menace that Jake bobs and weaves around while trying to make a good first impression. Once married, things don’t get easier from there, as Jake has such low self-esteem that he can’t respect a woman who would sleep with him. A scene where he puts a sexual encounter with Vickie on ice, so to speak, perfectly encapsulates Jake’s carnal hang-ups and the bitter jealousies that they create.

Expecting Raging Bull to be his last major movie for a while, and possibly ever, Martin Scorsese pulled out all the stops for the project. Teaming back up with Who’s That Knocking at My Door editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who has subsequently edited each of his films since, Scorsese was exacting with how the film was to be cut. This also applies to the sound design as well, which brings home the brutality of the boxers’ blows to their bodies. In addition to the impact noises, sound editor Frank Warner also incorporates clips of elephant braying and horse neighing during LaMotta’s fight with Sugar Ray Robinson. This contrasts with Jake’s insistence late in the film that he is “not an animal”, unintentionally mirroring another black-and-white movie released in 1980 that was also nominated for 8 Academy Awards.

The Sugar Ray sequence remains Raging Bull‘s most brutally memorable scene, the sound dimming to silence as Jake waits on the ropes to receive his punishment at the hands of Robinson. De Niro’s look of defeat and self-loathing as he waits for the punches tells the entire story of what this guy is about in a single frame. As Jake takes his licks, Michael Chapman’s monochromatic cinematography obscures the difference between blood, sweat, and tears. It’s a baptism of bodily fluid in keeping with co-writer Paul Schrader’s career-long fascination with perceived penance and turbulent absolution. But it’s De Niro who puts a blood-stained cherry on top of the scene, sauntering with a pulverized face over to his opponent’s corner and bragging “you never got me down, Ray.” While watching LaMotta tear himself down doesn’t necessarily make Raging Bull one of the more enjoyable collaborations between Scorsese and De Niro, it remains one of their most accomplished.

Gran Turismo

Sony takes another shot at adapting a popular PlayStation series for the big screen with Gran Turismo, a stock sports biopic to go along with their stock action-adventure Uncharted from last year. This year’s offering inherently has a bit more going for it, as the racing genre naturally translates to the cinematic and tying the video game to real-life events also hits Hollywood’s penchant for true stories. There are some reliably exciting race sequences in the film, and some augmented effects that help unpack the mechanics of the sport, but the narrative itself is frustratingly frictionless. Outside of the actual race scenes, director Neill Blomkamp isn’t able to develop or sustain authentic stakes for his characters, instead relying on ineffectual antagonists that get shuffled around chumps like at the bottom of a leaderboard.

The film begins with marketing executive Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom) pitching an idea to Nissan International that involves getting the best Gran Turismo gamers in the world behind the wheel of actual race cars. Soon enough, GT Academy is born and Moore has to find someone who can turn these virtual motorists into qualified competitors on the racing circuit. Enter Jack Salter (David Harbour), a gruff, washed-up former driver who would rather take a chance on bedroom dwellers than suffer the arrogance of affluent posers who think they can buy their way into the sport. An online tournament is held and 9 sim racers are selected for the Academy; among them is Cardiff-based Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe), whose father Steve (Djimon Hounsou) was a notable pro footballer. Despite their differences in temperament and skill set, Jann and Jack weave through the obstacles of the international racing scene together.

The mentor-mentee relationship between Jack and Jann is just one of the many tropes Gran Turismo indulges in its narrative but Harbour and Madekwe give everything they can to characters that are routinely underwritten. The pair is also saddled with repetitive and derivative dialogue at every turn; if I had a dollar for every time Jack barked some variation of “this isn’t a video game; this is real life!”, I’d have enough to buy my own Nissan GT-R sports car. Despite this, their performances are about the only thing worthwhile off the track in the movie and the scenes where their characters find ways to relate their experiences to one another are the clear high points. Bloom, on the other hand, is playing to the rafters with every line and lends zero discernible personality traits to his already paper-thin character.

Where Gran Turismo fails as an underdog sports movie is giving the audience a sense of how the protagonist actually works his way up from the bottom to be a champion. This seems like a given but the actual “how” behind a video gamer turning into a pro racer leaves plenty to examine in ways that an okay boxer turning into a great boxer in another story would be self-evident via training montage. Sure, Gran Turismo has montages where Jann deftly avoids the chopping block at the Academy and seems to progress as an actual racer but the movie never really delves into what prepares him for expertise in this world outside of knowing the tracks from the game. Too often, Blomkamp sidesteps process in favor of platitudes and keeps us out of the driver’s seat when it comes to involving us in Jann’s evolution.

With its central theme of partnership in racing and a climax set during the 24 Hours Of Le Mans race, it seems inevitable to compare this movie to 2019’s Ford v Ferrari, which smokes Gran Turismo in every category. But the most important way that film succeeds in comparison is that it works hard to convey the sensation of how it feels to be behind the wheel of one of these powerful vehicles. For all of its footage of competition and cars zooming by, Gran Turismo feels comparatively artificial and less tangible, likely due to the sometimes jerky CG effects in the sequences where cars collide with one another. The film is based on a video game and, at times, simply feels like watching a video game play out. For fans of the Gran Turismo franchise, that may be enough to rev up their engines but most moviegoers will feel like they got stuck with a lemon.

Score – 2/5

More movies coming this weekend:
Coming to theaters is The Hill, a sports biopic starring Dennis Quaid and Colin Ford about the real-life journey of baseball player Rickey Hill and his struggle with a degenerative spinal disease as his fights to join Major League Baseball.
Premiering on Netflix is You Are So Not Invited To My Bat Mitzvah, a family dramedy starring Sunny Sandler and Samantha Lorraine about a pair of best friends whose plans for their respective coming-of-age parties are threatened by middle school drama.
Streaming on Hulu is Vacation Friends 2, a buddy comedy sequel starring Lil Rel Howery and John Cena about a couple who meets up with another couple while on vacation in Mexico and sees their friendship take an awkward turn when they get back home.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Last Voyage Of The Demeter

Earlier this year, the boisterous action comedy Renfield reimagined what the world of a modern-day Dracula might look like through the eyes of his beleaguered assistant. Though the film comes undone the more it moves along, and ultimately doesn’t work on the whole, at least it has a fresh take on the material and a few well-constructed gags along the way. Comparatively, The Last Voyage Of The Demeter offers almost nothing of value when it comes to the legacy of Bram Stoker’s timeless creation. An extrapolation of a single chapter from the 1897 landmark novel that gave birth to the Count, the inexplicably 119 minute-long movie is utterly rudderless in terms of narrative conviction. It doesn’t surprise me that the project has languished in development purgatory for a couple decades but Universal’s decision to theatrically release it during a crowded summer movie season is confounding.

After a cold open capped by a tacky jump scare, Voyage kicks off with Captain Elliot (Liam Cunningham) and first mate Wojchek (David Dastmalchian) of the transport ship Demeter looking for a few more hands on deck before they set sail from Romania. After learned lad Clemens (Corey Hawkins) and a couple more relatively able-bodied men join the crew, it’s off to London with a crate branded by portentous insignia in cargo. The mariners seem to have the wind in their sails, literally and figuratively, until hidden stowaway Anna (Aisling Franciosi) appears in the hull and gives warning of a monstrous presence onboard. Soon enough, scallywags get picked off one by one by an unseen creature who only comes out at night and the Demeter crew find themselves caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.

Director André Øvredal had moderate success mining literary horror from Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark back in 2019 but where that collection of short stories allowed for ample avenues of adaptation, The Last Voyage Of The Demeter constantly struggles to justify its runtime. Since we know Dracula is obviously going to come out triumphant against this crew, Øvredal is not only expecting audiences to suspend their disbelief for just shy of 2 hours but also to care about these seafaring ciphers. The cast do what they can, with Dastmalchian giving the most engaging performance of the 4 primary actors, but there’s barely enough on the page to cover a feature-length storyline, much less character development. It’s hard to know what at the script level convinced these talented performers to come aboard this project.

Not that every single-location slasher has to have a sterling script but it at least has to have some creative kills and a novel tension to precede them. Unfortunately, Voyage doesn’t have much in that department either, despite a feral and fierce creature design for Dracula that is noticeably different from how we typically see the Count on-screen. Øvredal’s inability to maintain a frightening atmosphere is partially due to an inconsistent visual language between cinematographer Tom Stern and editor Patrick Larsgaard. In both scenes of dramatic conversation and of brutal action, there are cuts made that unintentionally throw off our understanding of where the characters exist in relation to one another. There are also brief lapses in continuity that could certainly be considered amateurish upon presentation but I’ll give the crew here the benefit of the doubt and assume they were rushed to deliver a final product.

After the Dark Universe franchise imploded in 2017 following the failure of The Mummy, it seems Universal has tried to revive their Classic Monsters in standalone efforts instead of trying to create yet another shared cinematic world. Though the two unrelated Dracula-based films they released this year didn’t work, they have the right idea in trying to consider each character individually and attempt to tell a different story. A perfect example of this is 2020’s The Invisible Man, which brilliantly recontextualized H. G. Wells’ tale for victims of psychological abuse. The excellent 1999 iteration of The Mummy wrapped its antagonist in a flawless combination of action and adventure. But if Universal keeps churning out monster fare as ruthlessly unexceptional as The Last Voyage Of The Demeter, then their plans to make their Monsters relevant will be dead in the water.

Score – 1.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is Blue Beetle, a superhero film starring Xolo Maridueña and Adriana Barraza following a recent college graduate who is chosen to become a symbiotic host to an ancient alien biotechnological relic that grants him a powerful exoskeleton armor and superpowers.
Also coming to theaters is Strays, an R-rated comedy starring Will Ferrell and Jamie Foxx set in a universe where dogs can talk and an abandoned dog teams up with other stray canines to get revenge on his former owner.
Streaming on Netflix is The Monkey King, an animated action comedy starring Jimmy O. Yang and Bowen Yang adapted from an epic Chinese tale about an egotistical primate and his magical fighting stick who team up to battle demons, dragons and gods.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Theater Camp

Adapted from a 2020 short film of the same name, the laugh-out-loud hilarious Theater Camp considers what Waiting For Guffman would look like if it attended Tairy Greene’s Acting Seminar For Children. This is the kind of intelligently-rendered comedy that has loads of jokes for general audiences but is also filled with references to musicals and performance subculture that will make theater kids swoon. True to the nature of the narrative, the film was conceived as a collective among a tight-knit group of stage players who have since made the leap to film and television. Co-directors and co-writers Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman both have close ties to star and co-writer Ben Platt, the former an acting collaborator from a young age and the latter a frequent director of Platt’s music videos. Their camaraderie pays off big time here.

Theater Camp is largely set in the confines of AdirondACTS, a summer refuge in upstate New York for young thespians looking to hone their craft. The crew is preparing for a new season when their intrepid leader Joan (Amy Sedaris) suddenly falls into a coma after a strobe light during a rendition of Bye Bye Birdie triggers a seizure. Regrettably, the duties of running the camp fall to her hopelessly half-witted son Troy (Jimmy Tatro), a would-be finance vlogger who wouldn’t know a foreclosure from a forearm. It turns out actual fiduciary knowledge would come in handy, as the camp is buried with back payments and capitalist firm representative Caroline (Patti Harrison) is waiting in the wings to buy the facility for pennies on the dollar. It’s up to veteran counselors Rebecca-Diane (Gordon) and Amos (Platt) to salvage the summer program and produce an original musical that will make the parents of the resident theater kids proud.

The almost overwhelmingly talented ensemble of Theater Camp also includes quickly-rising stars Noah Galvin and Ayo Edebiri, the latter of whom appears in 3 films that are currently in theaters right now, with one more (Bottoms) due later this month. Edebiri plays a hastily-acquired replacement instructor who embellishes mask work and other esoteric theater techniques to disguise the fact that she doesn’t know what stage combat is, much less how to actually teach it. Her character Janet, along with Troy and first-time camp attendee Devon (Donovan Colan), underscore an intriguing subtext of the movie. All three being novices to the theater world makes them outcasts in this environment, even though they could be seen as the most “normal” characters in the film.

But, of course, Theater Camp isn’t a searing psychological investigation of in-group/out-group bias; it’s a comedy, and one of the funniest of the year at that. Shot and edited in a mockumentary style, the film captures just the right moments from each character to let us in on their entire worldview with just a couple lines of dialogue. The actual storyline, which involves tropes like lopsided friendships and a scrappy underdog defying the odds to come out on top, isn’t anything new but doesn’t end up bogging down the end result. From the auditions to rehearsals to the final stage performances, there are small yet hysterical moments that immerse us in this weird world that musical geeks call home. Just the way that show tunes “Oh What A Beautiful Morning” and “Give My Regards To Broadway” were quoted through PA pronouncements had me in stitches.

Gordon and Lieberman also nail the tone in their direction, affectionately skewering this off-beat community with just the right amount of snark and wit. This warmth for the material also comes through effortlessly in the performances, particularly Platt as the head of drama (in more sense than one) at AdirondACTS. Given how much of a disaster the cinematic adaptation of Dear Evan Hansen was, it’s nice to see Platt in a role that is perfect for him to inhabit. The movie is also a terrific showcase for Tatro, a standout from Netflix’s true-crime mockumentary American Vandal who plays an endearing moron about as well as any actor I can think of at the moment. Whether you’ve never belted out a tune on stage before or you came into the world singing Sondheim, Theater Camp is certain to delight.

Score – 4/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Coming to theaters is The Last Voyage of the Demeter, a supernatural horror movie starring Corey Hawkins and Aisling Franciosi depicting strange and horrifying events that befall a doomed crew as they attempt to survive an ocean voyage from Transylvania to London.
Streaming on Netflix is Heart of Stone, an action thriller starring Gal Gadot and Jamie Dornan about an intelligence operative for a shadowy global peacekeeping agency who races to stop a hacker from stealing its most valuable and dangerous weapon.
Premiering on Amazon Prime is Red, White & Royal Blue, a romcom starring Taylor Zakhar Perez and Nicholas Galitzine about an altercation at a royal wedding between the son of the US president and a British prince that gives way to a blossoming romance between the two.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup