THE IRISHMAN (2019)

December 1, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. The Copacabana tracking shot in GOODFELLAS is etched not only in my brain, but in cinema lore. Filmmaker Martin Scorsese teases us with a similar shot as the opening sequence in his latest. The camera snakes through the dank halls and rooms of an assisted-living center before settling on the well-worn face of wheelchair-bound octogenarian Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro). Mr. Sheeran is the titular Irishman, and he narrates the story of his life, at least as he recalls it. His is a life story that connects the mob to history and politics in a no frills manner surely to provoke thought, skepticism, and a knot in the tummy.

Oscar winning writer Steve Zaillian (SCHINDLER’S LIST, also GANGS OF NEW YORK, THE FALCON AND THE SNOWMAN) adapted Charles Brandt’s book “I Heard You Paint Houses” for the film. Mr. Brandt was Sheeran’s attorney and worked with Sheeran on his memoir. The book title is highlighted by Scorsese at both the beginning and end of the film, as well as through a line of dialogue in the first phone conversation between Sheeran and Jimmy Hoffa. Mr. Sheeran was a WWII veteran turned truck driver turned mob hit man (and good soldier). He tells his story with little fanfare and in a way that we understand no glamour is associated with this lifestyle.

For those looking for the next GOODFELLAS or CASINO, you’ll likely be disappointed. This one is not as flashy or stylish as those two classics, and instead is a 3 and a half hour introspective look at the men who are efficiency experts in power. Violence is merely one of the tools in their box. The presentation is contemplative, not action-centric. The hits are abrupt and jerky and realistic, not the stylistic choreography of shootouts in films like JOHN WICK. There is a skewed theme of friendship and male bonding … even mentorship. It’s unlike what we’ve seen before from mob movies.

After a chance meeting over a timing belt on a delivery truck, Sheeran is taken under the wing of Philadelphia mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). This is Pesci’s first onscreen appearance since 2010, and he is absolutely brilliant in his portrayal of “the quiet Don.” His performance is 180 degrees from his comedy in LETHAL WEAPON (2.3.4) or HOME ALONE, and 180 degrees the opposite direction from his roles in GOODFELLAS and CASINO, where he was a bombastic man (not a clown) on the edge of violence at all times. Mr. Pesci has spent the last decade playing jazz under the name Joe Doggs. It’s such a joy to have him back on screen, especially as the father figure-friend-ruthless businessman. His Russell is always calm and calculating, whether plotting the next kill or putting up with his wife’s frequent smoke breaks on a road trip.

It’s Russell who directs Sheeran to connect with Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Pacino flashes his blustery best as Hoffa in a couple of scenes, but is also terrific while spewing one of his countless “c***suckers”, or savoring one of his beloved ice cream sundaes – a simple pleasure in a complicated life. Sheeran and Hoffa develop an unusual friendship in their many years together, and Hoffa’s real life unsolved disappearance in 1975 is the basis for Sheeran’s recollections.

We learn that Sheeran’s time in WWII taught him to kill … there is a scene involving POW’s digging their own grave while his rifle is pointed at them. In fact, most of the story is told in flashbacks that bounce between different eras. Scorsese, as has been reported ad nauseam, has utilized the de-aging process from Industrial Light & Magic to show DeNiro, Pesci, Pacino and others over the years. The effect is a bit distracting at first, but the story and these characters are so intriguing that we simply roll with after the initial jolt. It’s also obvious how Scorsese worked to make DeNiro look like the hulking presence Sheeran was in real life (think Tom Cruise in the Jack Reacher movies). Camera angles, should pads, and shoe lifts are used to make us think DeNiro towers over the others the way Sheeran really did. DeNiro is excellent in portraying Sheeran as a good soldier, reserved in mannerisms – even flashing a slight stutter at times. He’s a proud man who simply looks at the mob work as his job.

In addition to the three stars who each excel in their roles, Scorsese has assembled a huge and talented cast. Harvey Keitel is chilling in a couple of scenes as Angelo Bruno, Ray Romano plays mob lawyer Bill Bufalino, Bobby Cannavale is steak-loving Skinny Razor, Jesse Plemons is Hoffa’s adopted son Chuckie O’Brien, Domenick Lombardozzi is Fat Tony Salerno, comedian Sebastian Maniscalco is “Crazy Joe” Gallo, Louis Cancelmi is bespectacled Sally Bugs, Jack Huston plays Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, and even Steven Van Zandt plays crooner Jerry Vale.

You are probably wondering, ‘Where are the women?’. While there is no Lorraine Bracco (GOODFELLAS) or Sharon Stone (CASINO), Scorsese makes the point that with Sheeran, and these other mobsters, it’s all business and real family relationships are nearly non-existent. Stephanie Kurtzuba plays Irene Sheeran (Frank’s second wife) and Katherine Narducci is Carrie Bufalino (Russell’s cig-loving wife). They have some brief but entertaining moments on the road trip, and Marin Ireland has an effective scene late in the movie as Carrie, one of Frank’s daughters, while Welker White plays Jo Hoffa. But it’s Sheeran’s daughter Peggy who is the quiet moral center of the story and his life. Played as a youngster by Lucy Gallina and later by Anna Paquin, Peggy is a mostly silent observer of her father, and whatever conscience he has, is impacted by her glances. Ms. Paquin is especially good with one question … “Why?”

Worthy of special mention is Stephen Graham who plays Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano, a friend-turned-rival of Hoffa. Graham and Pacino share two standout scenes – one in prison, while Hoffa scoops his sundae, and a later meeting where Hoffa takes offense to Tony Pro’s late arrival and casual attire. Both scenes are remarkable in that there is underlying humor balancing the surface anger. In fact, the film is filled with memorable scenes. Hoffa’s guidance on self-defense in guns vs. knives, and most every scene between DeNiro’s Sheeran and Pesci’s Russell. DeNiro and Pesci have a chemistry few actors share. It dates back to RAGING BULL (1980), and I believe this is their 7th film together.

The film reminds me of the 1970’s movies that fueled my movie obsession: THE GODFATHER I and II, THE CONVERSATION, THE FRENCH CONNECTION, CHINATOWN, and even THE LAST PICTURE SHOW. Sheeran may or may not be a reliable narrator, but these are real people – even if we don’t know the specifics on every hit. Captions are periodically included to inform of us how a particular mobster met his maker – again providing some dark humor. What is a bit surprising is the male bonding, even friendship, between guys in such a brutal profession. And watching how the story weaves in and out of history with the Bay of Pigs, Cuba casinos, and the Kennedy assassination -“If they can whack a President …” is a bit unsettling.

Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (SILENCE, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN) is a good fit for Scorsese’s vision, and you can catch the varying camera styles for each character – and don’t miss the stunning shot of the illicit guns in the river. Composer Robbie Robertson (The Band) delivers Scorsese trademark musical riffs, and 3-time Oscar winner Thelma Schoonmacker is in peak form editing this epic. This is the 8th film collaboration for Scorsese and DeNiro, but the first in 25 years (CASINO).

I’m a little concerned. In fact, I’m a little more than concerned. This feels like the end of an era. It’s not the end of Scorsese films, but it’s the final chapter of his mob films. No other filmmaker comes close in this genre. With the bookends of Sheeran reminiscing in the assisted-living home, this is quite the holiday gift for cinephiles … and a lasting one (providing Netflix survives).

watch the trailer:


THE COMEDIAN (2017)

February 2, 2017

the-comedian Greetings again from the darkness. It’s often seemed as if Robert DeNiro existed in two unrelated cinematic worlds. He’s a 7 time Oscar nominee and 2 time winner (The Godfather: Part II, Raging Bull) renowned for his dramatic work, while also seemingly intent on proving he’s as funny as he thinks he is. His work in Analyze This, Analyze That, and the Fockers franchise takes “playing against type” to an extreme. This latest is his return, 35 years after The King of Comedy, to playing a stand-up comedian.

Of course Jackie Burke (DeNiro) is no regular comedian. He’s pushing 70 years old, has anger issues, no close friends, a strained relationship with his brother (Danny DeVito) and agent (Edie Falco), and fights his popular legacy as “Eddie” from a decades-ago popular sitcom. He strives to be recognized not as Eddie, but as Jackie Burke, the king of insult comics.

That anger lands him in community service where he meets Harmony (Leslie Mann) who is also serving her time. It’s kind of creepy to watch the 30 years older dude hit on her, but it’s explained away by her ‘daddy issues’ with Harvey Keitel. Of course, DeNiro and Keitel have a natural rhythm (that spans 5 decades of working together), but it’s really DeNiro and Mann who have the best scenes (outside of the unnecessary romantic interlude). Ms. Mann is especially fun to watch and brings a sense of realism to a film that’s mostly lacking.

Taylor Hackford directs a script written by a blend of 4 writers: a Producer of Fight Club, a standup comedian, an Oscar nominee for The Fisher King, and a writer best known for the Kennedy Center Honors. It’s a weird mix that explains the periodic flashes of genius and the overall mismatched parts.

There are no shortage of familiar faces that pop up, including Billy Crystal, Lois Smith, Jimmie Walker, Brett Butler, and Gilbert Gottfried. Patti LuPone is enjoyable in her role as DeVito’s wife and Jackie Burke-hater. It’s nice to see Charles Grodin in a Midnight Run reunion with DeNiro, and Cloris Leachman proves that comedy kills in her brief time on screen.

Although there is a more cutesy humor segment at a retirement center when Burke leads the residents through a make-shift version of “Makin’ Poopie” set to the rhythm of “Makin’ Whoopie”, anyone seeing this should be braced for raunchy humor. Lots of raunchy humor. Jackie Burke is an insult comedian in the vein of Don Rickles, only he adds a dash of Jim Norton and Amy Schumer. With all the uncomfortable laughs, it might best be described as that rare film genre – blue humor for the blue hairs.

watch the trailer:

 

 


YOUTH (2015)

December 17, 2015

youth Greetings again from the darkness. With a Best Foreign Language Oscar for his previous film The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza), expectations were sky high for this one from writer/director Paolo Sorrentino. Cinematographer Luca Bigazzi is also back and the two create yet another artistic entrée that is a visual extravaganza, worthy of the admission price even if no dialogue existed. Combine the visual artistry with a commentary on age and emotions, and the result is a film that will either enchant or stultify … with probably no middle ground.

Michael Caine stars as Fred Ballinger, a renowned Orchestra conductor, who is vacationing at a stunning Swiss Alps spa with his daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) and his long-time best friend, screenwriter Mick Boyd (Harvey Keitel). Fred, a self-professed retiree, is being pursued by Queen Elizabeth’s representative to perform one last concert. Fred is adamant in his refusal … for personal reasons we later learn are due to his nostalgic belief that his wife (no longer able to sing) is the only one who will sing his “simple” songs as long as he is alive. In the meantime, Mick is working with a group of ambitious young writers in an attempt to leave a legacy with his most important film ever. So you can already see that both men are working through their golden years in different ways.

Lena is devastated when her husband dumps her for a young pop singer (played by the real pop singer, Paloma Faith). Oh, one other detail … Lena’s husband is also Mick’s son (Ed Stoppard). This makes for some awkward (but entertaining) moments, and also leads to one of the film’s best scenes – Lena spilling her emotional guts to Fred while they are both covered in a mud bath. Director Sorrentino is a master at twisting these poignant moments with dashes of levity or irony. Another example is when Miss Universe (Romanian model Madalina Diana Ghenea) puts a condescending movie actor (Paul Dano) in his place with a devastating shift in tone and a comeback for the ages.

Sorrentino executes a couple of bizarre dream or fantasy sequences – one with Fred conducting a cow pasture (replete with cows and other bits of nature), and another with Mick being haunted in a meadow by all the female stars from his films (each in costume of their character). Suffice to say, this is not a conventional look at aging. What’s also clear is that Sorrentino believes our emotions drive our actions. The most jarring example is the aftermath when Mick’s long-time leading lady Brenda Morel (played by Jane Fonda) declines to appear in his latest film.

Even the most bizarre segments are presented with a visual artistry that forces our brains to process overtime. How about an obese Diego Maradona (played by Roly Serrano) repeatedly kicking tennis balls into the air? Or big time actor Jimmy Tree (Dano) struggling with his decision to sellout by appearing in a popular robot movie instead of pursuing his desire to be taken seriously as an actor? Or Lena bouncing back with a socially awkward mountain man? Or the seemingly minor role of a young masseuse (played by Luna Zimic Mijovic) who has us yearning for more? In addition to how each of these segments is startling to look at, Jane Fonda’s role has so many nuances that an entire movie could be made about her.

As with The Great Beauty, the film will have the most profound impact on those of us old enough to be looking through the binoculars and noticing how far away the past looks … and wondering just how long until “Life’s Last Day”.

watch the trailer:

 


TWO MEN IN TOWN (2015)

March 18, 2015

two men in town Greetings again from the darkness. Director Rachid Bouchareb, a long time festival favorite, has taken the general story of writer/director Jose Giovanni’s 1973 film of the same title and relocated it from France to a New Mexico border town. It touches on many elements such as rehabilitation of criminals, small town justice, human personality traits, freedom and justice, and conversion to Islam.

Opening with the silhouette of a brutal murder against the sunset in a New Mexico desert, the film has a western feel replete with the sense of doom and impending showdown. Forest Whitaker stars as Garnett, a paroled man who has just been released after serving 18 years for killing a deputy. Despite a life of crime that began when he was 11 years old, Garnett was a model prisoner who obtained his GED and mentored others while becoming a converted Muslim. His words make it clear he wants to put his old life behind and start fresh – however, his actions show he still struggles with explosive anger issues.

In a move that seems counterintuitive, Garnett is confined while on parole to the county in which he killed the deputy. The local sheriff (Harvey Keitel … who else would it be?) sets about making things difficult for Garnett, and expresses anger at his release while the “deputy is still dead”. The idealistic parole officer is played by Brenda Blethyn, so the stage is set for the clash of philosophies: trust and rehabilitation vs historical behavior and justice. Adding one more challenge to Garnett’s new world is the presence of his old crime boss played by Luis Guzman, who of course, wants him back in the business.

While many folks all over the globe struggle endlessly to find love; Garnett is 2 days out of prison when he falls for the local banker played by Delores Heredia. Herein lies the problems with the movie. The love connection just happens too quickly. Guzman is never the ominous presence of a truly bad guy. Keitel only gets to offer glimpses of his disgust at Garnett’s freedom. These three characters are all severely underwritten despite the efforts of three fine actors.

If not for the terrific performance of Forest Whitaker, the film would fall totally flat. It’s his screen presence that keeps us watching, hoping against all odds that he will find the peace he so desperately seeks. There is a wonderful scene with Whitaker and Ellen Burstyn, and a couple of the scenes with Whitaker and Blethyn are powerful, but the other pieces just never pack the punch necessary for this one to fully click.

watch the trailer:

 


THE CONGRESS (Le Congres, France, 2014)

April 13, 2014

DALLAS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL (2014)

congress Greetings again from the darkness. As a fan of director Ari Folman’s Oscar nominated Waiting for Bashir (2008), I was excited to see this one on the line-up at Dallas International Film Festival. While some will find The Congress a bit messy and difficult to follow, it certainly reinforces Folman’s innovative and creative approach to story telling and filmmaking.

The first half of the movie is live action and the second half is animated. The best description I can offer is as a social commentary, not just on Hollywood, but society as a whole. While Her makes the case for virtual relationships, this movie makes the case for virtual everything else! Robin Wright plays Robin Wright, an aging movie star who is offered a chance to stay young and be popular forever. Just sign this contract, and Miramount Studios owns your complete public image. No more acting, just kick back and enjoy your money … and watch what we do with your image and career.

The cast is very strong, but the movie has a feeling of having been rushed through production … at least from the live action side. In addition to Ms. Wright, Danny Huston chews some scenery as a cut throat studio head. His blunt description of Ms. Wright’s “bad choices” since The Princess Bride speak to not only many actors, but for many in the audience as well. Harvey Keitel plays the agent, Jon Hamm appears through voice only in the animated sequence, Kodi Smit-McPhee (Let Me In, The Road) plays Wright’s son and central plot figure, and Sami Gayle plays his sister. Paul Giamatti appears in both live action and animated form as the family doctor.

Some will be reminded of A Scanner Darkly, and others of Cool World. The best this movie has to offer is not in its (creative) presentation, but rather in its ability to provoke thought about the look of future society and the impact of technology … as well as the whole issue of identity and what makes us who we are. It’s a brain-scrambler if you stick with it.

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (2014)

March 16, 2014

grand budapest Greetings again from the darkness. Some of the finer things in life are an acquired taste. The exception to that is the film canon of writer/director Wes Anderson. You either “get” it or you don’t. Which side of the line you fall is much more a matter of style and taste than intellect.

This latest from Anderson may be his most visually distinct and stylistic presentation yet. He even tosses in a bit of a plot so that we have more reason to follow the outlandish antics of master concierge (and murder suspect) M Gustave – played with comic verve by Ralph Fiennes. Yes, the Ralph Fiennes known for such comedy classics as Schindler’s List, The English Patient and The Hurt Locker. Admit it, when you need a laugh, you fire up the Ralph Fiennes stand-up routine. OK, so he did have a role in the terrific dark comedy In Bruges, but nothing has prepared us for seeing him in this witty, fast-talking role at the center of Anderson’s wildest ride yet.

As any follower of Anderson films will tell you, there is always fun to be had in picking out the members of his supporting cast. Assisting Mr. Fiennes with this one are Edward Norton, Jude Law, F Murray Abraham, Tilda Swinton (oddly cast after Angela Lansbury dropped out), Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Tom Wilkinson, Saoirse Ronan, Lea Seydoux, Mathieu Amalric, Jason Schwartzman, and Owen Wilson. Of course, there is also Bill Murray, in his seventh collaboration with Anderson. The most impressive new face is that of Tony Revolori, who plays the teenage Lobby Boy in-training … a role that turns vital when he is befriended by Gustave, and is invaluable in the telling of the story.

None of that really matters though, as the best description I give this is “spectacle”. It’s a whimsical romp with nostalgic tributes throughout. It’s a movie for movie lovers from a true movie lover. You will notice the three distinct aspect ratios used to depict the different time periods, and the music is perfect … from Vivaldi’s Concerto for Lute and Plucked Strings to Alexandre Desplat’s fantastic composition over the closing credits. If you are up for some hyper-stylistic eye candy, this one is tough to beat (especially this time of year).

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: colorful costumes and wild set design combined with oddly humorous deadpan dialogue delivery from the mind of Wes Anderson is something you “get” OR you never miss a Ralph Fiennes comedy!

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: traditional story telling is your preference for movies

Below you will find two links … one for the trailer and one for the Desplat’s closing credit song.

the closing credit song:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=skpyDiCrMZs

the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Fg5iWmQjwk

 

 

 


MOONRISE KINGDOM (2012)

June 5, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Not many people think like Wes Anderson. That’s probably a good thing in real life. It’s definitely a good thing for movies. He is a creative and distinct filmmaker, though not one with mass appeal. My two personal favorites of his are The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore. His previous film, Fantastic Mr Fox, was a solid hit and critically lauded. Now he delivers one that will probably only click with his core fans. It’s a thing of beauty … if you keep in mind that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Set on the fictional New Penzance Island off the coast of New England in 1965, the movie opens with terrific visuals of the Bishop family’s lighthouse/home. Our tour is conducted as if the home were a dollhouse, and our eyes struggle to keep up with the detailed decor. We are struck by the color palette of tans, greens and splashes of red. This will continue throughout the movie.

The story centers around two 12 year old misfits: Sam and Suzy. Sam is an orphan and outcast in his Khaki Scouts troop, and Suzy is misunderstood and ignored by her selfish parents, who communicate with a bullhorn and through legalese at bedtime (they are both lawyers). Sam and Suzy are attracted to each other’s misery and decide to run away together (yes, they are on an island). This ignites a flurry of activity on this quiet island and showcases two first time actors with remarkable screen presence: Jared Gilman (Sam) and Kara Hayward (Suzy).

 The “grown-ups” on the island include Suzy’s parents played by Bill Murray (a Wes Anderson regular) and Frances McDormand. The island police chief is played Bruce Willis, who we soon figure out is also a social outcast. The Scoutmaster is played by Edward Norton with a regimented weirdness that will have you laughing in confoundment. For such serious topics, Mr. Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola provide us many comedic moments – both through dialogue and site gags.

During the search, other colorful supporting characters get involved. Social Services is pursuing Sam. Tilda Swinton plays Social Services. In one of the few gags I’ll give away, Swinton’s character only introduces herself as Social Services. This is a gut punch to a system that is often under-staffed and forgetful of it’s true mission. We also get Jason Schwartzman as a very helpful, though slightly seedy, Cousin Ben. Harvey Keitel plays the senior Scoutmaster who is unhappy with Norton for losing a scout. Bob Balaban makes periodic appearances as a narrator … either for a documentary or for the movie, depending on the moment’s need.

The script does a wonderful job of capturing how the 12 year old brain works. Some of the scenes with Sam and Suzy are almost like looking a photo album … exactly the way our childhood memory works. Flashes of moments. The Alexandre Desplat score is heavy on percussion, but it works well with the minimalistic look of the film. It’s also interesting to note that this is one of the few movies where it makes sense to have a soundtrack with Benjamin Britten, Hank Williams and Mozart! If you go to this one, keep your eyes open and moving, and your ears receptive. The payoff is worth it.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a devoted fan of Wes Anderson OR you are ready for an example of what makes indie films so intriguing to those of us who crave them

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF:  your movie preferences lean towards straightforward entertainment rather than off-beat dialogue from disturbed characters

watch the trailer: