Tag Archives: Barry Levinson

Remembering Robin Williams: Nate’s Top Ten Performances

Robin Williams left us five years ago this week, and out of all the celebrities, actors and entertainers who have passed on, his absence is still the one I feel most. So what made him so special? For me it was the way he could cut so deep in both serious and comic performances. When he showed up in the room the energy turned light and carefree as the zany, untethered forces of his improvisation and imagination took over like a gentle breeze. Then when it was time to rein it in for a more serious, introspective scene he would be less effervescent but the light in his eyes wouldn’t dim, the focus wouldn’t falter and he’d demonstrate his equally brilliant talent for heartbreaking drama as well. He could carry an entire film on his own, light up a supporting role and even make a cameo glimmer through to become memorable. In looking back I’d like to highlight the ten performances that are most personal, most memorable and mean the most to me as someone who grew up watching him on the TV all the time, idolized and loved him dearly. Enjoy!

10. Adrian Cronauer in Barry Levinson’s Good Morning Viet Nam

No other scenario requires a much needed sense of humour like the fog of war, but Williams’s rebellious spirit isn’t received well by the brass in Nam, yet he makes it clear that a good dose of verbal comedy is exactly what the airwaves need in this case. It’s a no holds barred performance with some touching emotional notes and plenty of slotted time to let loose behind a radio DJ’s mic.

9. Walter Finch in Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia

Cast against type as the freaky villain of Nolan’s chilly murder mystery, he channels a Stephen King style energy in playing a slippery antagonist set against Alaska’s grey skies and at odds with Al Pacino’s sharp but distraught homicide cop. Williams is somehow constantly likeable yet creepy in a way you can’t quite put your finger on until the third act rolls around and he really lets it rip.

8. Parry in Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King

Mental illness gets a ballistic but tender portrayal in Gilliam’s urban fantasy that sees Robin as a former professor of medieval history who loses his mind following a tragedy. Surreal production design helps his work flow but the raw potency is all his in a performance that brings down the house, brings out the best in both Gilliam and Jeff Bridges and shows how a mind broken isn’t necessarily one lost forever.

7. The Genie in Disney’s Aladdin

I’m pretty sure all of the Genie’s dialogue wasn’t even scripted off the bat, I think they just sat Williams down in front of a voiceover mic each morning, gave him a general outline and then slowly backed away out of the room to observe the magic happen. The result is a nostalgic blast of a vocal performance that so many hold dear and one of the most quotable Disney characters of all time.

6. Alan Parrish in Joe Johnston’s Jumanji

Infusing childlike wonder is something he was always good at, and it served well here in playing a guy who has been trapped inside a deadly jungle themed board game since he was a kid. His chemistry with Bonnie Hunt is funny and touching, his feral mania upon being finally released from the game into 90’s suburbia is hilarious and the interaction with young Kirsten Dunst and Bradley Pierce makes for a dynamic character that I always love to revisit.

5. Philip Brainard in Disney’s Flubber

Williams plays an incarnation of the absent minded professor archetype in Disney’s unfairly dismissed comedy. In a film whose star is a rambunctious pile of ever morphing charismatic green goo, trust Williams to defy that description and upstage the Flubber itself with his own wild, inspired performance. But he also gets surprisingly deep when lamenting: “I’ve spent my whole life out there trying to figure how the world works when I should have been trying to figure out *why* it works..” it’s a disarming line to hear him intone in a heartfelt manner from a Disney film, but that’s why I love this one so much.

4. Sean Maguire in Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting

Mentor, friend and advisor to Matt Damon’s prodigal kid, Williams imparts wisdom in clear eyed fashion here as an extremely down to earth fellow faced with an extraordinary situation. His mid film monologue to Damon won him a best supporting Oscar, but the moment that captures this character’s spirit most beautifully is when he wistfully remembers his wife who passed away, and injects some humour into the conversation that was purely Robin’s improvisation and as a result hits the scene home.

3. Rainbow Randolph in Danny Devito’s Death To Smoochy

Devito’s venomous farce of children’s media is a criminally undervalued and quite terrific film, and Williams goes into full on nut-bar mode as a disgraced kiddie show host who never should have been let on the air to begin with. Trying to kill Edward Norton’s beloved rhino Smoochy in between bouts of rage, flagrant insecurity and maniacal mood swings, it’s an incredibly ballsy, thoroughly R rated and absolutely hysterical piece of black comedy performance art not to be missed.

2. Daniel Hillard/Mrs. Doubtfire in Chris Columbus’s Mrs. Doubtfire

The lengths that loving father Williams goes to in order to see the children he lost custody of here would be horror movie material in any other actor’s hands, but because Robin was so adept at both wacky innovation, disguises and genuine heartfelt explanations for such behaviour, the result is both magical and realistic. The restaurant scene alone is time capsule worthy, in which Hillard has to multitask and hop in and out of the Mrs. Doubtfire suit rapid fire to both have a family dinner and entertain a scotch swilling TV exec (Robert Prosky).

1. Chris Nielsen in Vincent Ward’s What Dreams May Come

A gorgeous fantasy film showcases Robin in his most deeply felt and affecting performance as a man who has lost everything including his own life. He ventures out across the afterlife through heaven, hell and beyond to find his wife and soulmate (Annabella Sciorra) and save her. Williams portrays celestial determination like no other and a fierce, passionate love for her that shines like a beacon through realms of the astral plane and lights up the film in the process.

Thanks for reading! I hope you all enjoy and hold Robin’s work as dear as I do, and have enjoyed my thoughts here.

-Nate Hill

Barry Levinson’s Rain Man

What I enjoyed most in Barry Levinson’s excellent Rain Man is that it didn’t cheap out with a faux sweet final cherry on top with the ending. What I mean by that is that in some stories about mentally challenged people, they will spend much of the film dealing with their conditions, the relatives, friends and doctors around them will help and periodically become frustrated by them and right near the end there will be this miraculous, parting of the clouds moment where a coherence comes through and the filmmakers attempt to manipulate the events by showing something unrealistic in order to make the story more palatable. Not this one. Dustin Hoffman is a method actor’s method actor and while I don’t always see the value in such focused, orchestrated and inorganic prep work, for this type of role it’s not only necessary, it’s crucial.

He plays Raymond here, a high functioning autistic man living in a care facility who is scooped up by his estranged younger brother Charlie (Tom Cruise). Charlie didn’t know he existed so it’s a bit of a shock and adjustment period for both, but really all he’s after is the three million inheritance money that’s gone into a trust in Raymond’s name, and all else he has to deal with results in frustration and lashing out. Charlie is a materialistic, caustic, self centred asshole when we meet him and one could argue who is in fact the more mentally challenged one given his immature behaviour. But that’s what character arcs are for, and Cruise’s here is something really special. At first he’s distant and short tempered with Raymon who, naturally, is tough to properly communicate with. But after spending time on the road together for weeks a bond forms and Charlie realizes that this man is the only real family he has left, and in a poignant series of interactions highlighted by one key conversation, the two become brothers again, or perhaps even for the first time, properly anyways. It’s a fantastic piece because the script treats these two with respect and let’s them be real human beings and not cloying plot devices. Cruise plays it hotheaded and then down to earth when the shift in his tone comes, I loved the scene best where he confronts Raymond’s doctor (Gerald R. Molen) about keeping his existence a secret this whole time. “It would’ve been nice to know I had a brother, and it would have been nice to be able to know him this whole time.” Cruise delivers the line offhandedly but the intention beneath cuts real deep. Hoffman is a series of mannerisms, behaviours and reactions that are clearly researched well, but he still lets the humanity and personality in Raymond shine through in every scene, he’s essentially multitasking with both sides of his brain and he fucking nails it. They’re supported by others including Valeria Golino as Charlie’s compassionate wife, Levinson himself as an irritating doctor prick, Lucinda Jenny, Beth Grant, Chris Mulkey and Bonnie Hunt who I’ve always had a huge crush on.

I like the choices made in this film. Many dramas like this get sort of way too down to earth and exist primarily in houses, hospitals, courtrooms and such. This one is essentially a buddy movie and much of it is spent on the road, which gives it a carefree, laidback feeling that lets the drama emanate through naturally of its own accord as opposed to setting up specific, intimate scenes and blocking the actors in such a way that you know it’s just meant to elicit heavy lifting in terms of performance. This film is different. They cruise down the highway, go for pancakes, gamble in Vegas and you truly get the sense that these are two real individuals living life and not existing inside the preordained vacuum of a heavily tailored script. I also loved Hans Zimmer’s light, ethereal score. There’s certain films where his composition is sort of non orchestral and counterintuitive, not what he’s used to. True Romance, Pacific Heights, Interstellar and this all feel like that, and the style suits the material here. What a great film.

-Nate Hill

Barry Levinson’s Bandits

Every once in a while a quirky indie style film slips through the studio system disguised as a star powered blockbuster, and usually isn’t met with the best reception. Such is the case with Barry Levinson’s Bandits, a buddy crime flick by way of an oddball love triangle marketed as Elmore Leonard/Tarantino type fare but emerging as something way more stream of consciousness and weird. Bruce Willis and Billy Bob Thornton play two slippery, bickering bank robbers who bust out of prison using a cement truck (that’s a new one) and continue their nationwide spree of larceny and mayhem, but none of that is even close to as violent or intense as it sounds. There’s a schoolboy charm to these two and every hostage they take, every bank they knock over is a breeze, feeling like a pleasant, quaint experience. Eventually a bored housewife (Cate Blanchett) tags along and they both fall for her, causing friction in a few ways. The three actors are perfect for each other; Willis is the cocky ladies man who has tunnel vision and doesn’t think too hard or too far ahead, Thornton ditches his usual alpha male snake shtick for a jittery, sweet natured hypochondriac fellow and their camaraderie is irresistible. Blanchett is never not in top form and it’s easy to see how a girl like her could stray into their lives, eventually becoming very important to both. Now, anyone looking for taut action scenes, an intricate plot or specifically verbose, showboaty dialogue will be disappointed. As penned by Twin Peaks writer Harley Peyton, most of the character interaction has a spontaneous, free flowing aesthetic and feels improvised half the time, which I loved. As for plot, the bank robber framework simply serves to see these guys meander around beautiful Oregon hanging out and talking with each other, with only a few succinct, clear cut set pieces. This is a film about what happens in between the action scenes or the robberies, about quiet situational humour, quirky romance and organic conversation. It’s tough to adjust to and nothing about the DVD artwork suggests how odd and airy the film will be, but if that’s your bag then you’ll love it. It drags a tad in the third act but pulls together nicely for a cheeky resolution to their story, and is overall an enchanting piece of comedic crime by way of impromptu theatrics. Loved it.

-Nate Hill

Barry Levinson’s What Just Happened: A Review by Nate Hill

  

Barry Levinson’s What Just Happened is an unfairly overlooked little Hollywood satire, a little less bombastic than his excellent Wag The Dog, but no less biting. It’s like Entourage on Zanax, a surprisingly laid back entry into an oeuvre that is usually foaming at the mouth with frenzy. Robert De Niro plays Ben, a very stressed out movie producer who is dealing with a zillion different things at once, most of which are going wrong. The character is based partly on real life Hollywood producer Art Linson, and his book. Ben has a lead actor (Bruce Willis playing Bruce Willis) who refuses to shave his bushy beard for a film. Anyone who remembers the film The Edge with Alec Baldwin and how big his beard was in that, well, that’s where the idea came from. That’s just a taste of how many weird things that both Hollywood and his personal life toss at Ben. He’s also in post production on a Sean Penn film (Penn also plays himself) with a very stubborn and flamboyant director named Jeremy (Michael Wincott) who refuses to cut the film in accordance with the studio’s wishes (here manifested by an icy Catherine Keener). Ben’s daughter (a weepy Kristen Stewart) is going through personal crisis, he’s also got a bitter rivalry with an obnoxious writer (Stanley Tucci) and has to babysit an anxiety ridden agent (John Turturro). It’s all a lot for him to handle and we begin to see the turmoil start to boil under Ben’s cool exterior. The cast is beyond ridiculous, with additional work from Moon Bloodgood, Peter Jacobson, Lily Rabe and Robin Wright as Ben’s estranged wife. Standouts include Michael Wincott who is a comic gem and gives the film it’s life with his pissy, enraged and altogether charming performance. Willis is also priceless as he ruthlessly parodies himself to the hilt. It’s slight, it’s never too much and is probably a bit too laid back for its own good, but I had a lot of fun with it, and it’s always cool to see meta movies about the inner workings of Hollywood. 

Barry Levinson’s Sleepers: A Review by Nate Hill

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Barry Levinson’s Sleepers is a deliberately paced, downbeat look at revenge, and is one of the most brilliant yet seemingly overlooked dramas of the 90’s. Part of it could have been marketing; The cover suggests blistering violence, confrontation and courtroom intrigue. While there are such moments within the narrative, they live to serve the story, which Levinson and his dream cast are doggedly intent on telling. It’s a sombre affair to be sure, slow and methodical as well, but never to be confused with boring. It’s just such a great story, one that unfolds exactly as it needs to. It starts in the 1950’s, where four young rapscallions run wild on the streets of Manhatten. It kicks the story off with a sort of urban Stand By Me vibe, and if you thought that film went to some heavy placed, stick around through Sleepers. When an innocent prank ends in tragedy, the four are sent to an austere children’s correctional facility, where they run afoul of some sadistic and abusive guards, led by Kevin Bacon, who is scummier than scum itself. They endure months of ritual abuse at the hands of these sickos, until their eventual release. Life goes on, as it must, the four boys grow up and follow very different paths from one another. Michael (Brad Pitt) becomes an esteemed lawyer. Shakes (Jason Patric) lives a quiet life, while Tommy (Billy Crudup, wonderfully cast against type) and John (Ron Eldard) take a darker road to drugs and crime. Eventually their past rears it’s head, and they are presented with an opportunity for much delayed revenge. It doesn’t all play out the way you may think though, and half the fun of this one is being surprised by geniunly lifelike plot turns and characters who behave as real humans would. Pitt is the highlight in a performance of quiet torment. Dustin Hoffman is fun as a washed up lawyer who gets involved, Minnie Driver shows up as a tough NYC gal who gets involved with Patric, Robert De Niro has a nice bit as a kindly priest who counsels the boys even until adulthood, and there’s further supporting work from Jonathan Tucker, Bruno Kirby, Frank Medrano, Brad Renfro, Terry Kinney and more. Levinson usually takes on bright, chipper comedies and razor sharp political satire. With Sleepers he deviates into tragic dramatic material, and shows his versitility excellently. This one gets grim, no doubt about it. However, it’s a story not only worth the telling, but worth the watching for us.