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).

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AN ACTOR PREPARES (2018)

August 29, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Does a kid ever lose hope that what was once a horrible/absentee parent might magically evolve into a dependable, caring parent – even as an adult? Is it ever too late for that parent to make amends? Director Steve Clark co-wrote this story with Thomas Moffett about a narcissistic actor (is there any other type?) and his feeling-slighted grown son being forced to take a road trip that likely won’t lead to bonding, but could result in their better understanding each other.

The film opens with a sweeping overhead shot of the Hollywood sign and the glittering lights below. It’s fitting since a big part of the story is the level of entitlement and garish ego proliferating the industry that put the town on the map. Legendary actor Atticus Smith is being presented a lifetime achievement award. We see that his career has been widely diverse with project titles ranging from the legitimate sounding “The Language of Men” to those with significantly more shock value like “Throwdown at Bitch River”. His speech is quite awkward, but it serves well as our introduction to the character which Jeremy Irons makes his own.

Mr. Irons goes over-the-top to play Atticus. His blustery mannerisms, ever-present scarf, and center-of-attention-seeking personality dominate much of the film and allow us to understand why his grown son Adam (Jack Huston) carries such a grudge for the man who never really tried to be his father, and who readily admits that the younger daughter (Mamie Gummer) is his favorite. It’s really the only empathy we can muster for Adam, since he early on establishes himself as a pretty unlikeable and quite annoying professor of film. In his first scene, he actually tries to lecture a class of female students on the real meaning of feminism (the class is “Cinema through a Feminist Lens”). The next time we see him, he’s being rude to his father Atticus, who has just suffered a heart attack. You know the type.

It’s that heart attack that puts these men together on the road – initially in a luxury tour bus, and later in a classic Plymouth Barracuda. Their destination is the daughter’s wedding, and the trip includes stops at the Chateau Marmont and The Drake Hotel in Chicago. Along the way, we see a bit more of a post-shower Atticus than we would prefer, watch one of the worst baseball scenes in movie history, and witness Atticus sneaking booze and porn on the bus, and then finally drugging his son.

The title of the film comes from a book by acting teacher Konstantin Stanislavski, which makes total sense once we realize these two men have been acting their way through life. Adam is terrified of becoming a parent like his father, keeps his own health issues a secret, and is apparently inept at documentary filmmaking, which he claims as his profession. On the trip, Atticus is prepping for his next role – he is to play God, which he seems to think is perfect casting … although the studio and his manager (Ben Schwartz) are quite concerned about his health.

Mr. Huston does finally bring his character along to the point where he seems more tolerable, and the film might surprise you on where it ends. There is some decent comedy and a yin and yang with father and son that adds enough entertainment value, as long as you can enjoy the flamboyant approach taken by the venerable Mr. Irons.

Watch the trailer:


HAIL, CAESAR! (2016)

February 6, 2016

hail caesar Greetings again from the darkness. Homage or Spoof or outright Farce? Though the Coen Brothers motivation may be cloudy, their inspiration certainly is not. The Golden Age of Hollywood is skewered by the filmmaking brothers who previously applied their caustic commentary to the movie business in Barton Fink (1991). However, this latest seems to borrow more from the unrelated universes of their films A Serious Man (2009) and Burn After Reading (2008) in that it alternates tone by focusing first on one man’s attempt to make sense of things, and then with a near slapstick approach to “urgent” situations.

The film seems to be made for Hollywood geeks. Perhaps this can also be worded as … the film seems to be made for the Coen brothers themselves. Rather than an intricate plot and subtle character development used in their classic No Country for Old Men (2007), this is more a collection of scenes loosely tied together thanks to their connection to Eddie Mannix, Capitol Pictures “fixer”. Josh Brolin plays straight-laced Mannix, a twist on the real Eddie Mannix, notorious for his behind the scenes work at MGM in controlling the media, protecting the stars and studio, and protecting movie stars from their own idiotic actions. He was a real life Ray Donovan. It’s Mannix’s job that creates the hamster wheel to keep this story moving (complimented by narration from Michael Gambon).

We witness a typical day for Mannix as he confesses to the Priest that he had a couple of cigarettes after promising his wife he would quit, negotiates with communists who have kidnapped the studios biggest movie star, deftly handles the studio head’s greedy desire to shift a western movie star into a genre for which he is ill-prepared, plans a cover-up for the starlet having a baby out of wedlock, and juggles the demands of the competing twin gossip columnists searching for scandal. Mannix keeps his cool through all of this while mulling a lucrative job offer from Lockheed that would put him right in the midst of the nuclear war scare.

With an exacting attention to period and industry detail, the Coen’s remind us of the popular genres and circumstances of the era. George Clooney plays mega star Baird Whitlock, working on the studios biggest picture of the year – a biblical epic entitled “Hail, Caesar!” (think Ben-Hur, The Robe, etc). Whitlock is kidnapped by a group of communist writers (not yet blacklisted) who are striking out against a capitalistic studio that doesn’t share the rewards with the creative folks. It’s a different look than what Trumbo offered last year. In a tribute to Roy Rogers and famed stuntman Yakima Canutt, there is a segment on popular westerns featuring Alden Ehrenreich (Beautiful Creatures, 2013) as Hobie Doyle, a popular actor whose an artist with a rope and horse and guitar, but not so smooth on his transition to the parlor dramas being filmed by demanding director Laurence Laurentz (a terrific Ralph Fiennes). In boosting Doyle’s public perception, the studio sets him up on a date with a Carmen Miranda-type played by Veronica Osorio. Her character is named Carlotta Valdez in a nod to Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Another sequence features Scarlett Johansson as DeAnna Moran, an Esther Williams type (with a behind the scenes nod to Loretta Young) in a Busby Berkeley-esque production number featuring the synchronized swimming so prominent in the era. One of the film’s best segments comes courtesy of Channing Tatum in a take on films like On the Town, where sailors would sing and dance while on leave.

Tilda Swinton (whose appearance improves any movie) appears as the competing twin sister gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thackery. Her hats and costumes are sublime and pay worthy tribute to Hedda Hopper (who also balked at being termed a gossip columnist). Jonah Hill’s only scene is from the trailer, and it could be misleading to any of his fan’s coming to see his performance; and the same could be said for Frances McDormand (a very funny scene as a throwback editor). And so as not to disappoint their many critics, the Coen’s have a terrific scene featuring four men of various religious sects who are asked their opinion of the script – so as not to offend any viewers. The pettiness is palpable.

Roger Deakins is, as always, in fine form as the cinematographer. The water and western productions are the most eye-catching, but he does some of his best camera work in the shots of individual actors or scenes-within-a-scene. We have come to depend on Joel and Ethan Coen for taking us out of our movie comfort zone, while providing the highest level of production – music, costumes, sets, camera and acting. While this latest will leave many scratching their heads, the few in the target audience will be applauding fiercely.

watch the trailer:

 


PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES (2016)

February 4, 2016

PPZ Greetings again from the darkness. For those high school Literature teachers struggling to get their students to embrace the classics from writers like Jane Austen, this movie won’t help much. However, chances are good that those same students will enjoy this blending of 19th century British class warfare with “The Walking Dead” – likely one of their favorite shows.  The zombie apocalypse has landed in the middle of Austen’s prim and proper story, including the repressed attraction between Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy.

Anyone expecting the serious undertones of Ms. Austen’s1813 novel will be disappointed … but the title should have provided a pretty solid hint. While her characters and general story line act as a structure here, it’s really based on Seth Grahame-Smith’s YA hit novel … delivering zombie battles and often zany humor. Burr Steers (Igby Goes Down) directs his own adapted screenplay and seems to really be having a great time – right along with his talented cast. The sets, costumes, dialogue and fight scenes work together to create an unusual movie experience that will generate plenty of laughs while not dwelling on the zombies or violence (it is PG-13). Expect most critics to destroy this one because it’s made simply for fun, not for art.

Of course, any Pride and Prejudice spin-off (even one with zombies) must pay particular attention to Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy. It turns out that Elizabeth and her four sisters are highly trained warriors raised to survive against the undead. It’s even clearer for Mr. Darcy as he is billed as a zombie hunter and protector of Mr. Bingley, the rich bachelor hooked on Jane Bennett. Things get muddled by the devious Mr. Wickham, a focused Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and especially the flamboyant fop Parson Collins. The interactions between these characters bounce between loyalty, romantic attraction, emotional turmoil and hand-to-hand combat … with enough comedic elements that most viewers will find plenty of opportunities to laugh.

The talented cast is all in. They play it mostly straight (with one major exception) to achieve the balance between somber and silly. Lily James (“Downton Abbey”) and Sam Riley (On the Road, 2012) are both fun to watch as Elizabeth and Darcy. They are the film’s best fighters … both with swords and words. Bella Heathcoate (Dark Shadows, 2012) is “the pretty one” Jane, who is wooed by Douglas Booth (Noah, 2014) as Mr. Bingley. Lena Headey (“Game of Thrones”) makes an impression in her limited screen time as an eye-patched Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and Jack Huston (“Boardwalk Empire”) is well cast as Wickham. Screen veterans Charles Dance and Sally Phillips take on the role of parents to the five Bennett daughters, but it’s Matt Smith (“Dr Who”), who turns the film on its ear with his unconventional twist on the oddball Parson Collins, who pretty much steals each of his scenes. He had those in the theatre laughing out loud more than a few times.

Pity is the word that comes to mind for any young man who takes these Bennett girls to the prom … or more likely to one of the societal balls. The weapons hidden under their formal gowns offer fair warning to zombies and handsy suitors alike. It’s this element of strong women (physically and emotionally) that might even allow Ms. Austen to appreciate what’s happened to her characters … were she alive to see it.

Even though the film offers plenty of fun with laughs and action and romance, let’s hope it doesn’t kick off a new zombie-adaptation trend. Here are a few titles that we hope never see the big screen: Sense and Sensibilities and Zombies, War and Peace and Zombies, Crime and Punishment and Zombies, The Old Zombie and the Sea, Wuthering Zombies, Romeo and Juliet and Zombies, and Alice’s Adventure in Zombieland.

watch the trailer: