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:


LIFE ITSELF (2014, doc)

July 26, 2014

life itself Greetings again from the darkness. Director Steve James is well known for his heralded documentary Hoop Dreams, released 20 years ago. Film Critic Roger Ebert was one of that film’s earliest and loudest champions. Now, Mr. James returns the favor with a tribute to the life of Roger Ebert, based on the memoir of the same name.

James struggles a bit with the film’s structure because there is so much story to Ebert’s life, and the director’s access to the challenges faced by Ebert during his last months of life make for a story unto itself. No punches are pulled, and this is one of the most head-on presentations of illness and dying that we have ever witnessed on screen. Ebert’s cancer took his jaw and his recognizable voice, but this man would not be silenced. He passionately embraced social media and blogging to become even more relevant than ever.

It’s fun to see the love-hate relationship between Ebert and his TV co-host Gene Siskel. This was the best kind of rivalry – one that brought at the best in both. I was fortunate enough to be exposed to them via PBS in 1975, their first year broadcasting together. I’ve said it before, but these two guys taught me how to watch a movie … how to appreciate what story was being told, and how it was being told. Their brief verbal jousts showed me that opinions can vary widely on movies and that it’s not just OK, but actually fun to debate the merits.

As much fun as their show was, what I really enjoyed was reading their full reviews in the Chicago newspapers. My trips to the library were often for the sole purpose of digging out the latest reviews (this was prior to internet). Whle I more often agreed with Siskel, it was Ebert’s stunning writing skills that really hit home with me. It wasn’t until many years later that I learned he won a Pulitzer at age 26, and had grown up as a journalist. His words could translate what his senses took in.

Because of all that, this documentary is very personal to me … as I’m sure it is to the entire community of film lovers that Siskel and/or Ebert inspired. The interviews with Werner Herzog, Martin Scorsese and Errol Morris (plus others) clearly display the impact of Ebert. But as personal as it is to these men as filmmakers and to me as a movie blogger, that’s nothing like the personal level we witness between Roger and Chaz, his wife. Roger’s health issues and numerous operations and rehabilitation stints show the courage and love of these two. This was heart-warming and gut-wrenching all at the same time … the kind of movie that Roger would have given a big thumbs up.

Here is what I posted the day after Roger Ebert died:  https://moviereviewsfromthedark.com/2013/04/05/

watch the trailer:

 

 


HUGO

November 29, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. This latest from Martin Scorsese can be fitted with multiple labels and each would be correct: a tribute to the birth of movies, a case for film preservation, a children’s fable, a special effects/3D extravaganza, a family movie with touches of Dickens. Very few directors would tackle such an ambitious project and succeed in producing such a magical experience.

Based on Brian Selznick‘s (relative to the film giant David O. Selznick) children’s book “The Invention of Hugo Cabret”, this is a story of redemption and fulfillment. Asa Butterfield plays Hugo, made an orphan when his watchmaker father (Jude Law) dies in a fire. Hugo gathers up the project he and his dad had been working on, and  moves in with his drunkard Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone). They live in the walls of a 1930’s Paris train station and maintain all the clocks, ensuring accurate time for travellers. When his uncle disappears, Hugo carries on the daily mission unseen by passengers and station staff. He steals the occasional croissant and milk to survive, all while continuing the mission of repairing the fantastic automaton his dad salvaged. Hugo is convinced there is a hidden message from his father that will be revealed when the automaton is fully functioning.

 Hugo gets cross-ways with a station toy vendor named Georges, played by Sir Ben Kingsley. Georges is a bitter old man and has no time for Hugo the urchin. Chloe Moretz plays Isabelle, a ward unto Georges, and she and Hugo strike up a friendship. Hugo introduces Isabelle to the world of cinema … previously off-limits to her thanks to Georges. She returns the favor by awakening Hugo to the power of books in a store run by the mysterious, and always great, Christopher Lee. All this is happening while Hugo tries to evade the grasp of the oddly dedicated and slightly twisted station inspector played by Sacha Baron Cohen.

 The kids’ research and automaton revealed hint lead them to a film history book written by Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg). It’s here that they discover Georges is really George Melies, the famous pioneer of film who developed the first special effects and studio system. If you know much of film history, then you recognize Melies as the one who brought us the 1902 A Trip to the Moon. It is here that Scorsese delivers a quick recap of the origination of film, including the Lumiere Brothers, the famous clock stunt by Harold Lloyd and other silent film classics like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. The best portion is dedicated to recreating the creative community  used by Melies to produce films with his wife in a make-shift studio.

 It is here that we are allowed to remember just how magical movies can be and how the best ones fill us with a sense of wonderment. The lines between what we feel and what Scorsese is showing us becomes so blurred it no longer matters. As Isabelle is overwhelmed in the theatre, that same feeling sweeps over us. How interesting that Scorsese’s first special effects film features the man who originated film special effects. We even get a re-creation of the famous Lumiere Brothers’ oncoming locomotive clip that caused audiences to jump. We get it in 3D in Hugo’s own station!

 I have been extremely critical of 3D and its misuse in movies these past couple of years. It rarely adds to the movie and always dims the colors and brightness. Scorsese is a firm believer in the technology and set out to show what can be done and how it can compliment the story. While more impressive than any 3D since Avatar, I still have my doubts about the benefits. What I do know is that if you can overlook the story that drags a bit and the possibly unnecessary 3D effects, you will probably find the film to be extremely entertaining and fun to watch. Howard Shore‘s score plays a vital role and supporting work comes from Emily Mortimer, Richard Griffiths, and Helen McCrory. It’s not for the youngest kids, but it will make you feel like a kid … while reminding you that movies are the stuff that dreams are made of.

Note: with a budget of almost $170 million, there is almost no chance that this film turns a profit, but for full effect, I would encourage you to see this on the big screen.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you can enjoy a tribute to film history wrapped in a family film designed to flaunt the power of 3D OR you have a pretty smart kid aged 8 or older who could appreciate the most impressive movie prop of the year (automaton).

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you lean towards a cynical mindset and are unlikely to open up for a big budget children’s fable making a case for film preservation

watch the trailer:


TAXI DRIVER (1976) revisited

February 11, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness.  I was excited to hear Dallas Morning News film critic Chris Vognar  put together a monthly film series focusing on the 1970’s.  The first showing was last night and, of course, I attended … Martin Scorcese’s 1976 film Taxi Driver.  The biggest surprise of the evening came when Mr. Vognar asked for a show of hands from those who had not previously seen the film … approximately HALF admitted it was their first time. 

Now I have seen the film 12-15 times, and last night made the third time on the big screen – counting the first time which was at a Drive-In!  The surprising thing about the first timers was that they were somehow drawn to it 35 years after release, but had never felt strongly enough to rent the video or include on their NetFlix list.  Maybe it was the lure of the Q&A with a noted film critic or maybe they just wanted it in a theatre setting.  Either way, it was very interesting to hear crowd reactions from so many who were witnessing the Schrader/Scorcese work for the first time.

 Whether you have seen the film or not, chances are good that you are familiar with the “You talking to me?” scene.  Robert DeNiro improvised the scene including the key line “Well I’m the only one here.”  That line goes straight to the theme of isolation and alienation that runs throughout.  Another interesting aspect to consider is the similarity between this film and John Ford’s classic The Searchers.  Both include no-holds-barred rescue missions (by war veterans losing their grip) to save a girl who may or may not want to be rescued.  In The Searchers, it’s Natalie Wood with the Comanche Indians; and here it’s 12 year old Jodie Foster with her pimp, played by Harvey Keitel

Taxi Driver certainly takes on a different look today, than it did when it was first released.  It was surely not endorsed by the New York Chamber of Commerce as we spend two hours in the filthiest, most crime-addled areas of the city.  Of course, today, much of that same area is touristy and revenue-producing (in a legal way!).  The campaigning by the slick politician and his idealistic supporters (Albert Brooks, Cybill Shepherd) ring as true today as then … kind of sad more progress hasn’t been made.

 This is a very tough film about one man’s slow descent from sanity caused by a seemingly impossible dream of cleaning up the streets of the city and the morals of its inhabitants.  The isolation and alienation themes hold up well today, and though it may not be Scorcese’s absolute best, it could be DeNiro’s rawest performance.  For a chuckle (you’ll need it after watching it), imagine the film directed by Brian DePalma (Scarfaceand starring Dustin Hoffman … it almost happened!

Next month’s showing is the underrated Hal Ashby/Robert Towne 1973 film The Last Detail, which features a 35 year old Jack Nicholson in full scene-chewing glory … one of my all-time favorites!


SHUTTER ISLAND (2010)

February 20, 2010

(2-19-10)

 Greetings again from the darkness. Ahh yes, the psychological thriller is my favorite movie genre. Not sure what that says about me. There are so few good ones, at least since Alfred Hitchcock passed on. Director Martin Scorsese often includes some psychological warfare in his films, but with Shutter Island, he leaps feet first into the world of the criminally insane.

This is a very difficult film to comment on because it is crucial that the viewer watch with a clean slate … in other words, don’t let someone toss out some spoilers if you plan to see the film. All I will say regarding the story is that it’s fun to watch and my brain was working non-stop the whole time (that’s a good thing!).  Scorcese uses many different camera angles, close-ups and bright red to go with they island storm.  The film has some of the style of his Cape Fear, but even more darkness to the story, as here, EVERY character is a bit off center.

Scorsese has, as usual, assembled an excellent cast. Leonardo DiCaprio takes the lead as Teddy. His partner is played by Mark Ruffalo and they “investigate” the disappearance of a patient from Shutter Island – a treatment center for the criminally insane. This is no vacation island and at the center is a civil war fort that houses the worst of the worst. The creepy place is run by Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow, who could both make afternoon English Tea seem downright ominous.

The cast is so strong that Emily Mortimer and Patricia Clarkson are basically limited to one scene each and Jackie Earle Haley continues his resurgence with a wicked one on one scene with Leo. Michelle Williams makes her appearances via flashbacks, visions and sweaty, late night dreams. By the end of the film, her ugly yellow dress was itself a frightening prop.

To cap off the mental and emotional turmoil, Scorsese adds an unusual score that at first seems overbearing at odd times, but later reveals itself to have been “right” all along. My favorite shot of the film is at the very beginning when the ferry first breaks through the fog. Funny enough, it was ME in a fog for the next 2 hours!