#284. Don’t Do Drugs

If there’s anything that the “war on drugs” has taught me, it’s that “drugs are bad.” While their educational approach may have worked to keep some people from drugs, it did little to curb the enthusiasm of people already hooked. What’s unfortunate about illicit substances is the glamorous lives that certain drug users come from (a la The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)). Obviously, those in the business of drugs (like in Blow (2001) or Scarface (1983)) are more likely to partake of their product, but certain criminal organizations, like the mafia, know the dangers of getting involved with drugs (like in Goodfellas (1990)) and do their best to abstain from them. Still, the allure of a chemical high appeals to the common masses, so it’s up to film to show the horrifying consequences of drug abuse. This week’s two films show us why we shouldn’t do drugs.

Year: 1996
Rating: R
Length: 94 minutes / 1.56 hours

The drug culture of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s was perhaps epitomized by films like Easy Rider (1969). This, along with the comedic stylings of Cheech and Chong, showed that some drugs are practically harmless. The stoner comedies of today reinforce this fact, but don’t show any consequences of extended use. When harder drugs are used, the slippery slope truly comes into play. There’s a lot someone will do to keep up a habit, but when they realize that their life has become controlled by the controlled substance, they find it difficult to remove themselves from it (either by the company they keep or the sheer difficulty of going clean). Drugstore Cowboy (1989) is a good example of this, whereas Pulp Fiction (1995) brings us the reality of the overdose. Unfortunately, films like Limitless (2011) and Trainspotting (1997) show that a few choice benefits make the choice to do drugs worth it.

While there are certainly many terrifying moments in Trainspotting that should drive us away from doing drugs, it’s the dark-comedy nature of the film that somewhat lessens the impact of the consequences of illicit drug usage. Scenes like “the worst toilet in Scotland”, or the hallucinations of a dead baby crawling over the ceiling certainly do their part to drive the audience away from drugs, but the comradery of these four heroin addicts makes the experience seem welcoming and social. In reality, the risks of contracting HIV, being arrested for robbery (to fund an expensive drug addiction), and outright overdosing are very high and hold very severe consequences. After many attempts to get clean, the main character, Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor), finally has enough motivation to leave his drugs behind, along with most of his friends.

Requiem for a DreamRequiem for a Dream
Year: 2000
Rating: R
Length: 102 minutes / 1.7 hours

Addiction is a powerful drug. By the time we realize we have a problem, it’s often too late to change things. The long road to recovery can only be completed with an admittance that we have a problem and a support system to help us reach the clean and happy ending. A common theme amongst the works of Philip K. Dick was that of drug use, which was most undoubtedly pulled from his own life experiences. A Scanner Darkly (2006) focused on drug users, law enforcement, and the companies that profit from said drugs, all tied together in a trippy package. What’s more startling is when the addiction is portrayed in a more realistic setting. There’s nothing more frustrating than watching a friend or loved one continue to go back to the comfort of their addiction. Robert ZemeckisFlight (2012) drives this point home, but the true consequences of addiction were best portrayed in Requiem for a Dream (2000).

The world of a junkie is an interesting place. Time no longer holds any relevance as everything seems to be traveling in slow motion or unbearably fast. Requiem for a Dream follows four addicts on their downward spiral to ruin. The intriguing thing about addictions is that sometimes they aren’t to illegal substances. Even household activities like watching television are artistically represented in the same way that getting high on cocaine are. However, even if it seems like everything is working out well and nothing could go wrong, consequences lie just around the dark corner. Requiem for a Dream begins to get intense as the consequences rear their ugly heads. From prostitution to prison to hospitalization, the results of a life of addiction are painfully obvious at the end of this film. If ever there’s a film to get people to stop doing drugs, Requiem for a Dream is it.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 cautionary tales


#228. Robert DeNiro

We all know that Robert DeNiro’s acting career is practically synonymous with the films directed by Martin Scorsese. Films like Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990), and Casino (1995) all helped establish Robert DeNiro as a de-facto mafia character actor. While he has used this to his benefit, the acting skills of DeNiro are much more varied than a flat, archetypical Mafioso. And while his career has followed a somewhat similar path to Christopher Walken, in that he had more serious roles earlier in his career, only to now play in more slapstick comedies, both men have been successful in their own rights. This week’s two films highlight some different roles Robert DeNiro has performed apart from the classic mobster roles: from stoic to silly.

The Deer HunterThe Deer Hunter
Year: 1978
Rating: R
Length: 183 minutes / 3.05 hours

The heyday of Robert DeNiro’s career was definitely in the mid-1970’s to early-1980’s. By the time he appeared in The Deer Hunter (1978), he had already won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Vito Corleone in The Godfather: Part II (1974). Before he was nominated for Best Actor in the 1978 Best Picture winner, he was also nominated for Best Actor in the aforementioned Taxi Driver (1976). And while he has received nominations for Best Actor in Awakenings (1990) and Cape Fear (1991), as well as Best Supporting Actor in Silver Linings Playbook (2012), his only other win has come through his long-time collaborator, Martin Scorsese. Raging Bull (1980) saw DeNiro acting at his best and Scorsese directing at his best. Still, The Deer Hunter was an important step for Robert DeNiro to eventually claim that gold statue.

The titular Deer Hunter is none other than Mike Vronsky (Robert DeNiro), a young man who lives in Pennsylvania with his two friends, Nick Chebotarevich (Christopher Walken) and Steven Pushkov (John Savage). Mike holds to the hunting mantra of “one shot”, and kills a deer with a single bullet on a hunting trip before the three friends are shipped off to the Vietnam War. Years later, they find themselves in a prison camp where the guards force the prisoners to play Russian roulette. In a risky move, Mike plays a round with three bullets and manages to take down his captors and escape. Another few years pass and Mike finds that Stephen has returned home, but Nick has not. Tracing Nick’s whereabouts, Mike ends up in Saigon right before its fall, finding Nick playing Russian roulette for money. Unfortunately, “one shot” is all it takes to settle things between the two of them.

Year: 1985
Rating: R
Length: 132 minutes / 2.2 hours

While some actors can take their craft very seriously, Robert DeNiro seems to have fun with it. Of course, with as many violent and intense films as he has been in, it is refreshing to see him in some minor, bit parts that don’t revolve around the mafia. One such example is that of “Captain Shakespeare” in the 2007 fantasy film, Stardust, wherein the flying pirate puts on a tough exterior for his men while hiding a sensitive, sophisticated, and intelligent inner core. These roles are often funny, playing on DeNiro’s dry comedic timing, no doubt enhanced by the plethora of mobster roles he has had to perform in the past. In the case of Brazil (1985), DeNiro actually wanted a bigger part, but was rebuffed into a smaller role because the character he wanted to play was already promised to a long-time collaborator of the director.

Archibald Tuttle (Robert DeNiro) is a heating engineer who works by his own rules. Unfortunately, this leads to him being labeled as a terrorist by the government. Through a mistake made by a misprinted form, a Mr. Archibald Buttle is taken away and Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) is sent to investigate the error. While there, he runs across Jill Layton (Kim Greist), a woman who bears a striking resemblance to the damsel in distress who regularly appears in Sam’s daydreams. It is around this time that Tuttle appears and helps Sam escape two agents from Central Services. Things spiral out of control for Sam as he tries to learn more about Jill. Because of his misuse of his position, Sam is strapped in a chair and tortured by his friend, Jack Lint (Michael Palin) until Tuttle arrives and saves him. Of course, as the film ends, the audience finds that not all was as it seemed.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 delightful DeNiro roles

Bacon #: 1 (Sleepers / Kevin Bacon)

#022. Martin Scorsese

There are times when the Academy Awards don’t really make much sense. I suppose that’s why they call them “upsets”. Many years, there will be a film that stands out, but it ends up being snubbed by the Academy. Of course, this means that the Director that should have earned it that year, ends up winning the next year for a film that isn’t quite as good, thereby perpetuating the cycle. At any rate, I feel that Martin Scorsese is one of those directors who put out a lot of great films, which ended up being nominated for Best Director, only to lose to someone else year after year. From 1980 to 2005, Scorsese films were nominated for Best Director six times. It wasn’t until Scorsese’s 2007 film, The Departed, that he finally obtained that gold statuette. Of course, having seen the other films he was nominated for, there were many that were much better than The Departed. This week’s two movies highlight some gems of Scorcese’s career.

Year: 1990
Rating: R
Length: 146 minutes / 2.43 hours

Two of the themes that Scorsese uses time and again are The Mafia and New York (see The Gangs of New York). Of course, it’s somewhat easy to understand, since whenever anyone thinks of the mafia in America, they generally think of New York. And yet, while The Departed finally won him the Oscar for Best Director, I feel Goodfellas is a much better mafia film. There are a few reasons for this feeling, including a simpler and more classic plot-line, as well as more memorable scenes and quotations. Of course, there could be a few reasons that Scorsese and Goodfellas lost out to Kevin Costner and Dances with Wolves for Best Director (and Best Picture, respectively), the most probable in my mind being that Francis Ford Coppola‘s The Godfather: Part III split the mafia vote.

While Scorsese has been nominated for Best Director multiple times, Goodfellas is one of the two times he was nominated for Best Writing.  #92 on AFI’s top 100, Goodfellas is one of the quintessential gangster films. The plot follows Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) as he becomes more and more involved in his dream job: gangster. Robert DeNiro portrays James “Jimmy” Conway (based on real-life gangster Jimmy Burke) who becomes the close friend and crime partner to Liotta’s Hill. The cast starts to get into trouble when the mob starts dealing with drugs, making everyone a little bit paranoid. Conway testifies against the mob and winds up in the Witness Protection Program as Hill just wants to live a normal life.

Raging Bull
Year: 1980
Length: 129 minutes / 2.15 hours

Another commonality between Scorsese films is Robert DeNiro. Martin Scorcese has a knack for directing gritty mob-related films just as well as Robert DeNiro has a knack for playing gritty, mob-related characters. Besides the aforementioned Goodfellas, DeNiro has also appeared in Taxi Driver, which garnered him a Best Actor nomination. However, DeNiro did win Best Actor for his role in Raging BullRaging Bull was Scorsese’s first Directing nomination from the Academy, which set him toward a 25 year career of not actually winning said award. As was the case with Goodfellas, Raging Bull lost out to actor-turned-director Robert Redford’s Ordinary People for the distinction of Best Picture (as well as Best Director).

Raging Bull is placed at #4 on AFI’s top 100 list, as well as being the #1 sports movie designated by the same institute. What’s interesting is that DeNiro wanted to collaborate with Scorsese on this film, and had to convince the director, instead of the other way around. DeNiro portrays Jake LaMotta, a boxer who rises through the ranks of middleweight boxing. Now, boxing is a very violent sport, but Scorsese manages to make the bouts as brutal as they are beautiful. Unfortunately, as we follow Jake’s personal life, the audience finds out that he can’t keep it in the ring, as he also fights with his wife and brother. Eventually, all good things come to an end, and Jake’s ending is as a lounge act quoting Marlon Brando (from On the Waterfront).

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 Scorsese snubs

Bacon #: 2 (Taxi Driver / Robert DeNiro -> Sleepers / Kevin Bacon)

#021. The Mafia

Protagonists take many shapes and sizes. Some are the strong, silent type who know what to do and are good at what they do. Some are the archetypal hero, who stands for honor and justice. And then there are the anti-heroes. This last category would be the bad guy in any other film with one of the other protagonist types as the main character. After all, good must triumph over evil in the end, right? And yet, sometimes you just have to root for the lesser of two evils. The Mafia is just one of those anti-hero protagonists. In a police drama, the mob usually plays the antagonist, but if the movie is about the mob, the roles are reversed. While people usually want the police to win, there is a small piece of them that likes the idea of the mafia. If you can become powerful enough to do whatever you want, isn’t that in essence, freedom? Freedom from rules. Freedom to create the rules. Still, even though freedom may seem glamorous, it usually comes at a severe price. This week’s two films highlight the anti-hero of the mafia.

The Godfather
Year: 1972
Rating: R
Length: 175 minutes / 2.92 hours

While arguably the best mafia movie ever made, The Godfather is considered by many to be the best movie ever made, period. The story is timeless, the acting is superb and the violence is gritty and real. When most people think of what happens in the mafia, I am sure that they think of what happens in The Godfather. Turf wars, over-the-top messages, multiple murders . . . it’s got it all. What’s a little interesting is that about half-way through the film, the plot takes a bit of a turn and almost feels like a plot you’d find in a video game. Of course, the most interesting part of the film is watching the evolution of an archetypal hero into a classic anti-hero.

Michael Corleone (Al Pachino) has just returned home from war. Any normal soldier would welcome the homecoming compared to the violence of the battlefield. Unfortunately, Michael’s father, Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) is the head of a New York mafia family. Unfortunately, Don Vito is not well liked by the other mafia families because of his ideals. Unfortunately, even if Michael doesn’t want anything to do with the mafia, the other families will do what they can to get to Don Vito. Eventually, Michael has had enough. With his father no longer able to run things, he steps up and does what has to be done to maintain some semblance of order in a world full of crime.

Year: 1990
Rating: R
Length: 146 minutes / 2.43 hours

A somewhat unfortunate side-effect of the mafia is the glamorous lifestyle that it seems to promote. Children in poverty look at these rich men in fancy suits and shiny cars and can only hope that someday they could do whatever they want to do. Once again, the promises of freedom, of no restrictions, of a life-long loyalty are highly enticing to those who have none of those things. But, once again, this life of glamour comes at a price. In order to get there legitimately, it could take your whole lifetime to arrive at the top. In order to get there quickly, it could cost you your soul. Choices have consequences, and sometimes those consequences aren’t apparent until it’s too late.

“As far back as I can remember, I wanted to be a gangster.” This opening narration by Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) just goes to show how children can idolize the mob. Of course, once you’re in, you’re in. When Henry teams up with Jimmy Conway (Robert DeNiro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), he has his “in” to the world of the mafia. However, the trick with the mob is that you can’t just be “in” the mafia without wanting to climb the ladder a little bit. But since Henry is just happy to be a gangster, he soon finds himself pulled into more and more serious situations by his two partners in crime (literally). Another unfortunate side-effect of the mob is that once you are “in”, it’s hard to get out.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 offers you can’t refuse