Movie Review ~ The Irishman


The Facts
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Synopsis: In the 1950s, truck driver Frank Sheeran gets involved with Russell Bufalino and his Pennsylvania crime family. As Sheeran climbs the ranks to become a top hit man, he also goes to work for Jimmy Hoffa — a powerful Teamster tied to organized crime.

Stars: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Bobby Cannavale, Jack Huston, Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano

Director: Martin Scorsese

Rated: R

Running Length: 210 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: In 2018, Netflix finally made it into the reputable big-time with Roma, the much-appreciated autobiographical film from Alfonso Cuarón that it debuted on its streaming service just weeks after giving it a small theatrical run to qualify for the Oscars.  Nominated for 10 Academy Awards and very nearly counting Best Picture among the three trophies it took home on Oscar night, it was a sign that Netflix as a fully-fledged movie producer wasn’t a flash in the pan occurrence.  Of course, by the time Roma was topping many critics best of the year awards, Netflix already had a contender for the Best Picture of 2019 with The Irishman, their much-anticipated collaboration with Martin Scorsese.

If it seems like we’ve been talking about The Irishman for over a year, you aren’t that far off the mark.  Though making a movie with similar themes had long been on Scorsese’s dream project list, it wasn’t until Charles Brandt’s 2004 novel I Heard You Paint Houses was published that the framework of the production would start to solidify.  Tapping Steven Zaillian (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) to write the script and securing a reunion with his long-time collaborator/star Robert De Niro, the hefty price tag of the movie became a cause of concern for most of the established studios even though Scorsese was a much-revered Hollywood icon.  That’s when Netflix came into the mix and put up the money to give Scorsese carte blanche to make the movie he wanted to make, how he wanted to make it.

Though, Scorsese works fast, the overall production took its time. Even after filming was complete, a sizable portion of the budget and the final completion period was devoted to the special effects that would “de-age” stars De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci (among others) but Netflix was so confident in their prospects they ran an ad for the movie during the Oscar telecast.  On paper, the Oscar winning roster in front of and behind the camera seemed like a slam dunk that would be hard to beat. Now, everyone wanted to know all these months later…would this be Scorsese’s masterpiece after the cool reception of 2016’s Silence and 2013’s successful but gratuitous The Wolf of Wall Street?

I have to tell you, I was worried about seeing The Irishman and not because I wasn’t confident that Scorsese would use his resources and cast like the wise filmmaker he has shown himself to be.  No, it was that 210-minute running time (that’s nearly 3.5 hours if you don’t do math) that had me quaking in my boots.  Though I was able to see the also-lengthy Roma in theaters where I could watch it uninterrupted, I’d have to see The Irishman outside of its theatrical presentation.  I doubt this is where Scorsese would have wanted me to see it, but I figured it was an interesting experiment that would test my focus as well as get an idea of how most viewers would see this.

Fear of focus was unfounded, though, because Scorsese has given audiences a highly engaging film that takes place over several decades but doesn’t feel as long as it is.  Yes, you may have read the first 2/3 of the movie are a tad meandering but the final act rewards those who have been patient and that’s not completely unfounded.  Still, this is a movie dependent on building personal connection to the players and watching the way they move in their respective circles.  It will definitely be a turn-off to those unprepared for the commitment and maybe they’d be better off watching the movie in segments, but I think the richer experience is letting Scorsese’s crime drama unfold at its intended pace even though it could have been slightly shorter – and this is coming from a critic routinely wishing movies were more expedient.

Bookended by a voice-over narration from Frank Sheeran (De Niro, Joy) and scenes showing his later life, the majority of The Irishman is told in flashback snippets while Sheeran and Russell Bufalino (Pesci, Home Alone) travel with their wives to a wedding of the daughter of Russell’s cousin Bill (Ray Romano, The Big Sick).  We see a younger Sheeran (a de-aged De Niro…more on that later) go from being a Philadelphia truck driver to a trusted hitman for a top crime family and the effect it has on his own conscience as time moves on.  Sheeran’s relationship as a bodyguard for union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood) goes from being transactional to an actual friendship and Hoffa becomes a familiar face in the home of Sheeran and his family.

When Hoffa’s actions start to become divisive within the local teamsters and eventually the mob family he’s been kept secure by, it sets off a chain of events that will come back to haunt all involved.  Hoffa has secrets on some dangerous people who don’t like to be intimidated by the rabble-rouser…and Hoffa’s infamous disappearance in 1975 should key you into the lengths they’d go to keep things under wraps.  How Sheeran figures into Hoffa’s vanishing is where that key final hour of The Irishman comes in and by then we’ve been immersed in this world for so long that while the developments create tension they shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Also serving as a producer of the film, De Niro’s performance is such a welcome change of pace for the veteran actor.  Though he’s lately been appearing in a questionable number of throwaway pictures, The Irishman helps reestablish why he’s one of the most respected people working in the business.  He gives Sheeran a quiet reserve with a talent for remaining emotionless before, during, and after being involved with heinous crimes…yet you can tell he’s set to a low simmer on high alert at all times.  This isn’t the typical De Niro we’ve come to expect and his reteaming with Scorsese (Cape Fear) is surely to thank for that.

It was big news when De Niro and Pacino teamed up for Heat in 1995 and less of an event for their stink-bomb Righteous Kill in 2008 yet here when they share the screen it’s like the first time we’ve seen these two performers spar.  Sheeran and Hoffa had an obvious complicated relationship, with Sheeran unfortunately caught in the middle of his loyalty to his employers and his friendship with Hoffa.  For his part, Pacino turns off his overzealous acting and gives Hoffa some dimension.  There’s little of the wild-eyed Pacino that’s often on display and more of the determined pit bull Hoffa was known to be.  By easing off the gas a bit, Pacino gets a bit of a redemption after appearing in a string of movies that are well beneath his experience level.

Supposedly it took Scorsese asking Pesci fifty times to play Russell Bufalino before the notoriously reclusive actor agreed to come out of semi-retirement for his old pal.  However much prodding it took, it was absolutely worth whatever headaches he caused Scorsese in getting him signed.  The Oscar winner was well-missed and his appearance here is reason enough to watch the film in one sitting.  Though it may seem as if it’s a role Pesci can do in his sleep by this point, there’s some interesting nuances he brings that further helps to define Bufalino and not just make him a variation of the characters he’s played in Goodfellas or Casino.  I was transfixed every time Pesci was onscreen and when you add De Niro and Pacino in as scene partners you sort of can’t believe the good fortune you have to watch these three at work.

So then we get to the whole “de-aging” process that took up so much time and I have to say that it’s largely a non-intrusive device.  Had Scorsese opted for casting different actors when the characters were younger, I’m not sure if they film would have been as successful in carrying over these dynamics to their older counterparts.  On the other hand, we all know what De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci looked like over the decades they’ve been in the business and the way they’ve been “youthfulized” doesn’t quite convince in every frame.  It’s good but not great, and very likely worth the money it cost in the long run since you have consistency in actors throughout the time periods.

There are many film fans out there that think Scorsese’s 1990 Goodfellas is the be-all, end-all as far as mafia movies go and it’s hard to make an argument against the brilliance of storytelling in that feature.  The Irishman is successful in many of the same ways but doesn’t quite get to that Goodfellas level due to its tendency to overreach and linger when it should be continuing onward.  Even though the film is highly watchable I can’t help but think some slight trimming could have made it an even better lasting film.  Those first two hours perhaps contain scenes that don’t belong, even if they ultimately provide more insight into Sheeran’s rise to his position.

Aside from the extended length, there have been complaints over the lack of female characters and it’s an interesting conversation to have.  The women that are featured in the film are often without much dimension and, aside from a sinister scene involving Russell’s wife, fail to have any major impact on the overall story.  The most successful actress is actually the one that most people are so up in arms about.  As Sheeran’s daughter, the amount of lines Anna Paquin (The Good Dinosaur) has could be counted on two hands but her silence is almost the point Scorsese was trying to make.  Her father has proved untrustworthy for so long, her lack of communication with him speaks to the depth of her resolve to not reward him with her love or kindness.

Now that The Irishman is out in the world and people can choose the way they want to watch it, it will be interesting to see how the movie ages over the years.  Going into Oscar nominations in a few weeks, it’s expected to come out with the most nominations and I’m not counting on that very real possibility.  For once, the effort is worth the accolades and the good notices are supported by an excellent film.  And Pesci…for goodness sake, how can you be unhappy when Pesci is onscreen?

The Silver Bullet ~ The Irishman



Synopsis
: A mob hitman recalls his possible involvement with the slaying of Jimmy Hoffa.

Release Date:  September 27, 2019

Thoughts: The pending release of any Martin Scorsese film will always create buzz but there’s a special kind of hum that’s been generated from his next film, The Irishman.  It’s not just that it marks another high profile director turning to a streaming service (Netflix) to finance and release their film but it also re-teams Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street) with two of his greatest collaborators.  Seeing Robert DeNiro (Cape Fear) playing another hard-boiled gangster is all well and good but boy, it’s already a huge thrill to see Joe Pesci coaxed out of a semi-retirement in this first teaser trailer.  Add in Al Pacino (Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood) and you have a triple-crown of heavy hitters in mafia films helmed by the godfather of the genre.  Though it’s too early to call this one a slam dunk, Netflix is likely gathering all their four-leaf clovers and betting on The Irishman to get them back into the Best Picture race they so narrowly lost last year.  

Movie Review ~ Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A faded television actor and his stunt double strive to achieve fame and success in the film industry during the final years of Hollywood’s Golden Age in 1969 Los Angeles.

Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Kurt Russell, Al Pacino, Dakota Fanning, Luke Perry, Timothy Olyphant, Emile Hirsch, Damian Lewis, Lena Dunham, Mike Moh, Austin Butler, Margaret Qualley, Bruce Dern, Zoë Bell

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Rated: R

Running Length: 161 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Plenty of directors have shown an affinity for their medium throughout the course of their careers…you kind of have to when you’re in an industry that loves a good pat on the back almost as much as they love a great opening weekend.  I’m not sure if I know of a filmmaker, however, that truly loves movies as much as Quentin Tarantino does.  Though the writer/director is notorious for his outspoken ways and has come under fire recently when some questionable actions on the set of the Kill Bill movies resurfaced, he’s never shied away from wearing his movie nerdishness loud and proud.  A fanboy for movies that range from popular classic to underground cult, Tarantino has an eclectic taste which has helped him to cull numerous reference points for his films throughout the years.

So it’s fitting that he’s finally gotten around to making a film about Hollywood, creating a story about a waning star and his stunt double crossing paths with faces both factual and fictional. Far from being an expose on the dark side of the Hollywood lifestyle, Tarantino is more interested in recreating the feel of living in this mecca that lured so many dreamers and, more specifically, how one man comes to terms with his fading career.   As with many Tarantino films, the object from the first frame is total immersion in the time and place and though it has recognizable actors from 2019 you could easily believe it was made 50 years ago.  You’ve likely heard it also has something to do with Charles Manson, Sharon Tate, and the infamous tragedy that occurred on August 8, 1969 but…more on that later.

Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio, back onscreen after a four-year absence and reteaming with his Django Unchained director) is a former star of a mildly popular western television show looking for his next project.  Unable to rest on the laurels of his previous role much longer, he seeks the advice of a blunt talent agent (Al Pacino, Stand-Up Guys, nicely dialing down his tired Pacino-y mannerisms) who urges him to consider leaving Hollywood to star in a series of spaghetti westerns filming in Italy.  The majority of the film tracks Rick over the next two days as he prepares to film a guest spot on a television series while mulling this new international opportunity.

At the same time, Rick’s stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt, World War Z) acts as chauffeur, handyman, gopher, and overall sidekick to the man he takes onscreen falls for.  Earning a bad reputation in the industry for a mystery surrounding his wife, Cliff can’t get much work outside of his employ with Rick so he sticks around hoping his boss will land another role that will call for his talents.  The two men have a clear kinship that extends beyond any lines of stardom and there’s an unspoken respect and loyalty flowing both ways, which is established so well Tarantino doesn’t need to fill in any gaps for the audience into how the two were paired in the first place.

What Tarantino does do, though, is take numerous opportunities to cut away to previous jobs Rick and Cliff worked on with varying degrees of success.  It’s fun to see DiCaprio loosen up dancing and singing (terribly) on Hullaballoo and an extended sequence where Cliff has it out with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on the set of The Green Hornet has absolutely no bearing on the rest of the movie but is quite entertaining on its own merits.  Where it gets tricky is when Tarantino indulges himself too much, taking us on long drives through Los Angeles (we get it, it’s a bigger town than we think) and burns valuable time with clips from Rick Dalton’s previous appearances.  Still, those drives through Los Angeles give production designer Barbara Ling (The Lucky One) an excuse to recreate some fantastic locales in exquisite detail.  All theaters would need to do is pump in some smog and you are right there in the heart of L.A.

The first hour of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood ambles nicely into interesting territory as we get our bearings (courtesy, again, of those long car rides) but it’s Cliff’s chance meeting of a hippie waif (Margaret Qualley, Novitiate) and offering her a ride home when the movie starts to get intriguing.  When they arrive at Spahn Ranch in Chatsworth, CA and Cliff meets the girl’s “family” his alarm bells go off and the hairs on the back of your neck will start to stand up.  Tarantino makes this not just the turning point of the movie but it’s centerpiece as well, as Cliff slowly realizes things aren’t what they appear to be and the property, which he is familiar with from his career with Rick, wouldn’t just be turned over to these creepy hippies.

Here’s where I have to give the slightest caveat of a spoiler alert coming up. While I won’t give any key plot details away I’ll need to make a few points known.  It’s not something you won’t already know.

Though many of us know about Charles Manson and his Manson Family, I was fuzzier on some of the finer details and didn’t realize until later when it was that Tarantino shifted into a slightly alternate timeline to the events as they originally occurred. The actual involvement of Manson and his followers in Tarantino’s movie is, honestly, minimal but it is a key piece of the overall story Tarantino has worked out regarding Rick and Cliff.

That means Manson victim Sharon Tate becomes a character in the film as well, showing up as Rick’s next door neighbor and giving Tarantino another real life individual with a timeline he may or may not feel the need to play around with. Though brought to life with vibrancy by a nearly silent Margot Robbie (Mary, Queen of Scots), Tate is a minor player that Tarantino prefers to keep at a distance when things take a dark turn.  Clearly, he only wants to remember Tate when she was young and beautiful, even going so far as to have Robbie going to see herself as Tate in a movie but watching the actual footage of Tate in the film.  For other celebrity sightings, keep your eyes open for appearances by Steve McQueen, Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning, Effie Gray, in a chilling cameo), Mama Cass, and Connie Stevens.

It’s not spoiling anything to say the night of August 8, 1969 is the final destination of the movie.  The ending of the film is still a bit of a puzzlement to me and I think I’ll need to see it again to firm up my thoughts on how successful it is. I’d be interested in hearing what the families of the victims think about the way Tarantino handled the events of that night and if the choices he made moved any immovable dials in their heart.  Like most Tarantino films (and quite like 2015’s The Hateful Eight) the director pulls all the stops out for the final reel – audience members at my screening seemed to go along with it but my reaction was more muted.

The real story here are the performances of DiCaprio and Pitt, arguably two of the honest-to-goodness biggest stars Hollywood has right now.  Both have toplined countless films and brought them to box office glory but combining their talents was a real win for Tarantino and a boon for the film as a whole.  As with many of his performances, I found DiCaprio good to a point, but the actor always gets to a certain level where you clearly see the effort being made and then it falls apart for me.  A scene of Rick chastising himself after a lackluster performance in a scene goes on far too long and, because we’ve already seen Rick’s vulnerability, is redundant.  It’s a good thing DiCaprio has Pitt next to him for so much of the movie because this is Pitt’s most radiant time to shine.  Wearing the barely visible faded scars of a stuntman long in the business, Pitt’s best moments are when he’s not saying anything at all but just reacting to what’s happening around him.  It’s one of his all-time great roles and, coupled with the much anticipated Ad Astra, could mean 2019 winds up being a very good year for him.

At nearly three hours, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood could arguably be trimmed by a good twenty minutes, though I think it would be at the expense of some tone setting and establishment of characters.  No question, there’s a less laborious way to get through the movie but I didn’t find myself bored, easily making it through this one more than I have numerous films half its length.  It’s a must-see in theaters and try to catch it in 35MM should it be playing in that format nearest you.  Then go read up about the people and places you see and untangle the fact and fiction braid Tarantino has weaved.

The Silver Bullet ~ Despicable Me 2

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Synopsis: Gru is recruited by the Anti-Villain League to help deal with a powerful new super criminal.

Release Date:  July 3, 2013

Thoughts: I was a surprising fan of 2010’s Despicable Me, finding its skewed humor fit nicely within the animation created by Dreamworks Studios.  Like the penguins from Madagascar, the tiny yellow imps that are the secondary characters here threaten to steal the film out from under our main hero/villain and that’s AOK with me.  After the bomb that was The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, Steve Carell must be thanking his lucky stars he has this film coming up in June because this one is a sure-fire bet to clean-up at the box office.

The Silver Bullet ~ Stand-Up Guys

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Synopsis: A pair of aging con men try to get the old gang back together for one last hurrah before one of the guys takes his last assignment — to kill his comrade.

Release Date:  February 1, 2013

Thoughts: Could you ask for a better trio of leads than Oscar winners Al Pacino, Alan Arkin, and Christopher Walken?  Probably not.  It’s a good enough company of smart actors that I’m willing to let the achingly familiar feeling plot off with a slap on the wrist.  Directed by Fisher Stevens, this early February release is appealing based solely on its stars who are all known to make slight material work in most magical ways.