You don’t hear Barry Levinson’s name thrown around that much anymore. I equate his talent to that of a superb character actor: we all recognize Levinson’s films, but few actually know that one man connects them all. This is a shame, as Levinson is responsible for some of the most iconic films of the past 30 years. Perhaps best known as one of Baltimore’s proudest sons, Levinson has dedicated much of his career to setting compelling stories in and around Baltimore’s complicated city limits.
But make no mistake, Levinson has proved he can step outside of Baltimore and still manage to tell a captivating story. While you’ll likely recognize a number of the films below, but it’s equally important to remember the man who’s been responsible for them all.
Levinson’s masterful Diner is a semi-autobiographical account of his journey into adulthood. Void of traditional narrative structure, the Baltimore-set film is a collection of scenes that perfectly explore the notions of impending manhood, job insecurity, family stability and the loyalty of friendship. Diner is the kind of movie that isn’t really about anything, but, at the same time, manages to be about everything.
Essentially, the film chronicles a group of close friends as they cautiously enter their 20s. Some are looking for jobs, others are trying to hold a job down. Some debate getting married, others do anything to get laid. They reminisce about the not-so-distant good ol’ days, and fear for the ones ahead. Paramount to the film’s success is the collection of fresh-faced talents like Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, Daniel Stern, and Tim Daly. Diner is equal parts hilarious, melancholic, honest and fully aware; certainly one of the finest buddy films ever made. A
Following the success of the thinly budgeted Diner, Levinson’s next film was an expansive tale of an aging ballplayer who’s given one last shot at the game. As Roy Hobbs, Robert Redford gives what may be the quintessential Robert Redford performance. Hobbs’ soft-spoken, masculine, and overall kind demeanor is the type of character Redford has personified throughout his career. Sadly, the film’s plot has been retold and recycled dozens of times over, so new viewers are likely to get little from it. The owner of the team Hobbs plays for wants the team to lose for various reasons, but the team manager wants to win. Hobbs is bribed by the owner to throw the season, and is thereby forced into a moral dilemma. A noble idea in 1984, but today it feels stale. But overall, Redford’s performance, along with some spectacular set pieces, make The Natural worthwhile. B
Young Sherlock Holmes is exactly what’d you expect: a breezy, optimistic genesis story of young Holmes and Watson dissecting a mystery at their boarding school. Produced by Steven Spielberg and written by Chris Columbus, the film has a little too much of a Saturday Morning Movie of the Week vibe for my tastes, but fans of the Holmes character will enjoy it.
It should be noted that Young Sherlock Holmes was the first film to feature a completely CGI character. The stained glass window knight took Industrial Light and Magic four months to create, and justly earned the film an Oscar nomination for Best Visual Effects. C+
In the opening of Tin Men (an amusing nickname for door-to-door aluminum siding salesmen) two such men get into a minor car accident and spend the rest of the film in an increasingly ruthless game of tit for tat. Neither Ernest (Danny DeVito) or Bill (Richard Dreyfuss) are willing to admit fault for the fender bender, so instead of letting it go, cars are bashed, wives are stolen, eggs and tomatoes are pelted… all for the sake of alpha male stubbornness.
While the film is a slight comedy that runs a tad too long, it’s always great to watch Barry Levinson craft a story set in his native Baltimore. The man is simply in love with the city, and his passion for setting always shines though. B-
The undiminished entertainment value of Good Morning, Vietnam exists for one reason, Robin Williams. As a DJ for the Armed Forces, Adrian Cronauer’s sole job is to distract soldiers in Vietnam from the hell they’re facing. To do this, Cronauer plays the best, most socially radical rock ‘n’ songs of the time, while broadcasting his own unique comedy between tracks.
To achieve the frantic, hilarious zeal of the extended on-air comedy sequences, Levinson let Williams improvise most all of his lines, which is what singlehandedly separates Good Morning, Vietnam from other war comedy satires of its kind. Adrian Cronauer was Williams’ first truly great film character, and while Good Morning, Vietnam boasts several other worthy elements (namely J.T. Walsh as Cronauer’s none-too-pleased superior), this film is entirely Williams’ show. B
Levinson’s most famous film is a road movie about two brothers who couldn’t be more different. After L.A. shark Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) learns of his father’s passing, he is baffled to discover that his father’s estate is being directed to Charlie’s older brother, Raymond, who he never knew existed. Charlie scoops Raymond up with the intention of getting his hands on their father’s money, but soon learns of Raymond’s autism, and the unique gifts Raymond has because of it.
If you’ve seen Rain Man, then you know plot is secondary to Dustin Hoffman’s fiercely committed performance. He’s a man trapped in the complex prism of his own mind, consumed by routine and inexplicable fear. What’s interesting about the film is that repeat viewings expose the repetitive nature of its storyline. Despite this, there’s always something new to be found in Hoffman’s performance. Whether it’s a pop culture reference that I now understand, or a subtle nuance in his characterization, Raymond Babbitt never grows old. He lives on as one of cinema’s most iconic film characters. A-
Much of the fun of these director posts is discovering a film like Avalon. Often, wading through a director’s entire filmography can be a boring chore, but occasionally, a film like this one comes along that makes it all worth it.
Avalon is so many things. A love letter to Levinson’s favorite city, an autobiographical coming of age tale not unlike Woody Allen’s Radio Days, an honest examination of Jewish assimilation in post-World War II America, and perhaps most significantly, a critique on how the American living room was forever altered by the advent of television. As the film evolves, one of its most startling revelations is how big family dinners were replaced by a small group of uncommunicative family members, sitting in front of a tiny talking box, TV dinners before them.
The many themes of the film are woven through the experiences of the Krichinsky family. As the patriarch of the bunch, Armin Mueller-Stahl gives one of the best performances of his career. He’s a man trying to keep his family together through conventional methods, while attempting to embrace America’s changing ways. Avalon is a glorious encapsulation of the ‘50s that I was so happy to discover. I loved every minute of it – from its opening Thanksgiving dinner sequence, to its excellently restrained conclusion. During that conclusion, I noticed that a TV was on. Always on, always there, forever a distraction. A-
Bugsy was Warren Beatty’s decades-long passion project that he was finally able to bring to the screen via a virtuoso mix of terse writing and confident direction. Hiring fearless avant-garde auteur James Toback to pen the film’s screenplay was a stroke of genius, and bringing Levinson on to run the show proved a supremely wise choice. The pairing of these three men was a perfect way to bring Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel’s infamous life to the big screen. The film is rooted in Beatty’s natural charm, but consistently (and welcomingly) thrown off by Bugsy’s random rage. It’s a large film – a wondrous portrait of old Hollywood, a playful retelling of Las Vegas’ foundation, a foreboding history of the mob – but it never becomes convoluted in story, or dull in execution.
Rounding out the cast is Annette Bening, who gives her fieriest performance as Bugsy’s longtime lover, Harvey Keitel and Ben Kingsley as high-level mobsters, and Joe Mantegna as famed actor George Raft. All are supplied with the flowing, catchy words of Toback, and photographed to perfection through Levinson’s glossy frame. Surely one of the most entertaining films of Levinson’s vast career. A-
After beginning his career with a decade of critical hits, Levinson’s first flop was the disastrous fantasy satire, Toys. As a kid, I didn’t have the slightest clue what the hell was going on in this movie; I just thought it was pleasing to look it. Watching it again for this post, I can’t say I understand the film any better. Something about a life long toymaker (Robin Williams) being upset that his evil uncle (Michael Gambon) is using the toy factory to make war toys. Clearly, a lot of thought went into the production of this film, but there’s too damn much going on for it to make the slightest bit of sense. D-
Barry Levinson has had great success as a producer of wonderful television shows. And while he boasts an executive producer credit for programs like Oz and Copper, Homicide: Life on the Street is one of the few shows he actually brought to fruition. For that reason, I’m making special mention of it here. Because before The Shield and The Wire, NBC’s Homicide established the strength of the police procedural drama. A truly great, genre-defining show. A
Jimmy Hollywood is a surprisingly hilarious flick about Jimmy Alto (Joe Pesci at his most hyperbolic), an actor who can’t catch a break, so he decides to become a small time vigilante. In all honesty, I didn’t expect much from Jimmy Hollywood, but Pesci’s insane performance, coupled with Christian Slater’s perpetually hazed turn as Jimmy’s friend, made for an overall enjoyable experience. At least at first. For a chunk of its running time, Jimmy Hollywood has everything going for it as a worthy send-up of the absurdity of Hollywood. But midway through, it starts to take itself too seriously, and ventures into laughable drama, where it unfortunately stays throughout. C+
Here’s the thing about Disclosure: it’s a perfectly decent erotic thriller that makes the fatal error of taking on too damn much. It needlessly blends its compelling plot (a provocative role reversal of office sexual harassment) with a silly cat-and-mouse rouse. Demi Moore (who plays the unmarried boss), attempting to seduce her former lover and current employee, Michael Douglas, is sexy stuff. The two have great, combative chemistry that plays well on screen. But the mystery of their affair is diluted by an idiotic office politics subplot. Had Levinson chosen to leave out at gratuitous additional material from Michael Crichton’s source novel, he could’ve had a Basic Instinct-type thriller – pure sex, all fun. D+
As far as I’m concerned, Sleepers is the finest film of Barry Levinson’s career. Initially a breezy coming of age tale of ‘60s era New York, the film swiftly and mercilessly transforms into a horror story of systematic abuse and youth lost, before changing a final time to a tale of corrupt but justified revenge.
The film concerns itself with a group of friends who, as youngsters, roam the dangerous streets of Hell’s Kitchen. After one of their normal pranks nearly kills a man, they are sent to a juvenile detention center upstate, where they fall victim to the physical and sexual abuse of several male guards. Years later, we meet the men as adults and see how the abuse they endured has molded them. Shakes (Jason Patric) is a quiet and affable newspaper man, Michael (Brad Pitt) is a rising star attorney planning on enacting revenge against the guards who tortured him; revenge that Tommy (Billy Crudup) and John (Ron Eldard), both drug addicted thugs, have already begun.
In addition to the key performers, Kevin Bacon (a true monster in uniform), Robert De Niro (a loyal priest and friend of the boys), Dustin Hoffman (injecting humor as an alcoholic, fumbling lawyer), and Minnie Driver (as the boys’ close girlfriend) flesh out the impressive cast. Each actor carries the weight of their respective characters, and sells it convincingly. Sleepers isn’t just a great film, it’s an important one. It’s a film full of moral dilemmas, but one that never forces you to choose sides. It is one of the best films I’ve ever seen about the life long effects of physical abuse. A work of art I’ll cherish forever. A+
A mere month before the world discovered that President Bill Clinton was sexually involved with an intern named Monica Lewinsky, Barry Levinson released a lacerating political satire about the government going to ridiculous lengths to cover up a Presidential sex scandal. When White House officials get word of the President’s misdeeds, they hire a fixer named Conrad (Robert De Niro) to spin the public perception away from President. To do this, Conrad formulates a plan to create a fake war. The hope is that, if there’s a war breaking out in, say, Albania, then America won’t care about the President screwing around at home.
To pull off this elaborate hoax, they hire famous Hollywood film producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman) to fabricate the whole ordeal. Watching Motss and his group of creative lackeys toss ideas around about how to sell the war, prove to be some of the most entertaining scenes of Levinson’s career. Like all great satires, the beauty of Wag the Dog is that, on the surface, its absurdity effortlessly provokes laughs. But when you reflect on the film a little further, you begin to wonder how far off it actually is. Could this happen? Has it happened? Perhaps we’ll never know. A
On paper, Sphere is an interesting concept that sounds well suited for a decent sci-fi suspense thriller. After a giant spaceship is found buried under 300 years worth of coral in the Pacific, a team of wildly intelligent doctors and scientists are sent to check it out. They soon discover a giant, golden sphere that preys on their worst specific fears, and are thereby forced to compete with its ceaseless threat.
Two main problems with the film: it runs entirely too long (growing painstakingly dull within its first hour), and it’s a cheap Solaris rip off that doesn’t live up to that masterpiece. The film’s star, Dustin Hoffman, was quite outspoken upon the film’s release, saying the studio forced the film through production, resulting in a rushed and unfinished product. I’d like to think that a more polished, tighter film would’ve worked better, but as it stands now, Sphere is a somewhat bloated mess. C-
Back in his native Baltimore, Liberty Heights chronicles the tumultuous differences of class and race in the 1950s. Seen primarily through the eyes of a well-to-do Jewish family, Liberty Heights poignantly captures how attitudes change once X group of people drive across this street. Whether it’s Jewish kids innocently crashing a WASPy party, or a young black girl inviting her Jewish friend over to listen to records, the film is always a moment away from sudden danger. What sets Liberty Heights apart is that Barry Levinson isn’t concerned with sensationalized filmmaking. Instead of using violence as a motivation for the characters to do something (as many films of this kind do), the characters in Liberty Heights evolve organically. There are no grand moments of triumph or dread in the film, which inadvertently makes the film feel wholly authentic. B+
Colm and George work as barbers in a Belfast mental hospital, and shortly after meeting one another, they are introduced to a new patient called The Scalper. Before he was locked up, The Scalper was said to be the only seller of hairpieces to the men of Northern Ireland. After Colm and George acquire The Scalper’s list of clients, they attempt to get rich by serving their newfound customer base. After sales don’t take off how they had hoped, Colm and George learn of a competing company also in possession of The Scalper’s list.
If the plot is any indication, An Everlasting Piece is a slight piece of farcical cinema that, to its credit, is fully aware of what it is doing. Barry McEvoy (who wrote the script and stars as Colm) and Brían F. O’Byrne (as George) have a ball delivering rapid-paced banter; repeatedly getting into and out of silly shenanigans. And, aside from its unexpectedly touching conclusion, An Everlasting Piece is pretty much exactly what you think it’s going to be. B-
Bandits is a rather disposable crime comedy about a pair of escaped convicts (Bruce Willis and Billy Bob Thornton) who develop an ingenious way to rob banks. Instead of busting in guns blazing, they calmly go to the bank manager’s home the night before a robbery, hold he and his family hostage, and have the manager quietly escort them into the bank the next morning. In the middle of their bank-robbing spree, they meet a housewife (Cate Blanchett) who soon falls for both of them. Part love triangle romance, part criminal comedy, part one-last-job thriller, Bandits has a handful of entertaining sequences and some decent performances, but never manages to be anything but ordinary. C-
Envy belongs with Toys as one of Levinson’s somewhat high concept comedy farces that misfired badly. The film is about a cranky man (Ben Stiller) who becomes consumed with envy after his eager-to-please neighbor (Jack Black) gets filthy rich by inventing a household spray that makes dog shit disappear. No, really. This film is so bad Jack Black actually apologized for its very existence mere weeks after its theatrical release. Which is probably enough said on the topic. D-
What if a Bill Maher-type late night personality was so fed up with the American political system that he decided to run for President? That’s the jumping off point of Levinson’s political satire, Man of the Year. And, to be honest, it’s not a bad plot for a slight, absurdist comedy starring Robin Williams. Problem is, once Williams’ character is actually elected, the film crosscuts his bizarre antics as President-elect with a melodramatic voter fraud subplot involving Laura Linney. The Linney storyline is completely unneeded and subsequently drags the rest of the film down. Had it just let Robin Williams be Robin Williams, Man of the Year might have been something worthwhile. D+
Upon its release, Levinson’s What Just Happened was written off as being too Hollywood-obscure. But for fans of behind the scenes Hollywood satires, this flick is entertainingly spot on. Movie producer Ben (Robert De Niro) tries to convince a hot-tempered British director (Michael Wincott) to re-edit his grisly film, while separately persuading Bruce Willis (humorously playing himself) to cooperate on the set of his latest film. I’ll agree that, at times, the film is a little too Hollywood insider for its own good, but hyperbolic or not, I’m generally drawn to fictional Making Of films like What Just Happened. One thing this film definitely has going for it is that, unlike other satires Levinson has made, What Just Happened never abandons its own absurdity. For better or worse, it knows exactly what it’s doing. B
PoliWood is an engaging documentary about the impact of celebrity culture on politics. And vice versa. Setting his narrative within the confines of the 2008 Republican and Democratic national conventions, Levinson follows a handful of celebrities around as they gain perspective on politics. Through the film, Levinson also has a lot to say about the importance that television plays on American politics, and how TV has turned politicians into celebrities, whether they like it or not.
I’m politically apathetic, so I found the film to be a rather engaging foray into something we all have an opinion about, but rarely see discussed constructively. But for those who lean to the right, I doubt you’ll get much benefit from PoliWood’s obvious liberal favoritism. B+
Levinson’s contribution to the fantastic ESPN documentary series, 30 for 30, is about how the relocation of the NFL’s Baltimore Colts devastated the city of Baltimore. Despite the unexpected move of the team, the Colts’ original marching band refused to go away. They practiced regularly and were eventually invited to play in other stadiums across the country. Once the Ravens came to Baltimore, the marching band was once again able to stand proud in a hometown stadium of screaming fans.
Like many of Levinson’s finest films, The Band that Wouldn’t Die is a love letter to Baltimore in the best possible sense. This is a man who cares deeply about where he’s from. The result is an emotive, highly entertaining 30 for 30 that I recommend to any fan of the series. B+
Al Pacino justly won an Emmy for his searing work as controversial physician Jack Kevorkian in this HBO film. As a whole, the film is occasionally bogged down with lackluster court procedural antics, but at its heart, the film’s splendid performances (from Pacino, Susan Sarandon and John Goodman) help shape an unbiased picture of a complicated man.
Part of the allure of You Don’t Know Jack is the conversation it provokes after. Is it ever okay for a doctor (or, well, anyone) to assist in the suicide of a terminally ill person who is eager to die? It’s a troubling moral dilemma that Levinson poses in an impressively objective fashion. B
The Bay is the last film I would expect from Barry Levinson. A micro budget, found footage horror film about a deadly parasite wreaking havoc on a small Maryland community, the film is small, effective, and completely unlike anything Levinson has ever done. As I said in my original review for the film, The Bay unsuspectingly made me laugh when I was supposed to laugh, cringe when I was supposed to cringe, and freak out when I was supposed to freak out.
The Bay is a gimmicky genre picture that probably shouldn’t work, but succeeds admirably. The film was released a year and a half ago, and I’ve been waiting ever since for Levinson to deliver something equally as captivating. B
Wag The Dog
Homicide: Life on the Streets
Good Morning, Vietnam
An Everlasting Piece
What Just Happened
30 for 30: The Band that Wouldn’t Die
You Don't Know Jack
Young Sherlock Holmes
Man of the Year
Just Plain Bad