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 GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (2011)

December 21, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. The character of Lisbeth Salander absolutely fascinates me. That’s true whether we are discussing Stieg Larsson‘s Millennium trilogy novels, the Swedish film versions, or this latest film version from director David Fincher (The Social Network) and a screenplay from Steve Zaillian. It’s also true whether Lisbeth is played on screen by Noomi Rapace (Swedish films) or Rooney Mara. She is a brilliant character hiding in plain sight from a world that has fiercely mistreated her, and now misjudges and underestimates her. She is the oddest heroine I can recall … and I can’t get enough of her.

 Let’s start with the source material. Stieg Larsson’s books are far from perfect, but addictive just the same. The first book (on which this film is based) is, at its core, a traditional who-dunnit presented in a manner that is claustrophobic, paranoid and eerie. Moving on to this particular film, we find the director and screenplay holding the basic tone of the book and original films, while making a few changes … some minor, others more substantial. These changes may irk those fervent fans who are quite loyal to the books, but Fincher surely wanted to offer more than a simple re-telling of the story.

 Daniel Craig plays Mikael Blomkvist, the journalist hired to solve the 40 year old mystery of the disappearance/murder of Harriet Vanger, niece to Swedish millionaire Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer). To research, Blomkvist must dig into the Vanger’s rotten family tree of Nazis, anti-Semites, sexual predators, anti-social fanatics, and a few just plain loony birds. You can imagine how excited this rich and once powerful family is to have someone uncovering long buried secrets. Circumstances allow for Lisbeth to assist Blomkvist in researching this.

 Unlike many mysteries where assembling the clues is the most fun, the real heart of this story is the odd, somewhat uncomfortable developing relationship between Blomkvist and Lisbeth. This latest version allows this to develop relatively smoothly, but it nonetheless rattles our senses. We see the subtle changes in Lisbeth as she slowly opens up to the idea of a real friendship based on trust. Fear not mystery fans, the Vanger clan still provides more than enough juice to keep any film sleuth happy.

COMPARISON: It’s truly impossible to avoid comparisons between the two movie versions and the respective casts. It’s quite obvious Mr. Fincher was working with a substantially greater budget than Niels Arden Opler had for the first Swedish film. While they are both enthralling, I actually lean a bit towards the rawer original. That takes nothing away from this latest version. Same with Noomi Rapace vs. Rooney Mara. Ms. Mara is excellent in her performance and I was fully satisfied, though Ms. Rapace brought a rougher edge to the role … one that made it even tougher to crack that shell. The biggest difference in the casts is Daniel Craig against Michael Nyqvist. Mr. Craig is just a bit too cool for the role, while Nyqvist captured the insecurity and vulnerability that Larsson wrote about. To have two such strong film versions of the same story released so close together speaks to the strength of Fincher and Larsson.

 All of that is nit-picking. Both film versions are thrilling and sterling entertainment, and clearly the Fincher version will bring the story to a much wider audience. He even brought back Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross to deliver another note-perfect score. I would encourage those that are interested to check out the Swedish version, as well as the Larsson books. Maybe you will join me in my fascination with this creature known as Lisbeth Salander.

note: this is an extremely harsh, dark film.  It includes brutal sex crimes, Nazism, animal cruelty and quite a few unlikeable, unsavory folks.  Heck, even the Swedish winter is jarring!

note 2: get there in time for the opening scene and credits. Reznor and Karen O (from the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s) deliver a searing remake of Led Zeppelin’s classic “The Immigrant Song” … over some mesmerizing visuals.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of the Larsson books and/or the original Swedish films OR you want to see one of the most original characters on film OR you are just looking for another reason to hate rich people

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF:  you are looking for upbeat, light-hearted holiday entertainment OR you avoid movies featuring any, much less all, of the subjects in my note above

watch the trailer:


MONEYBALL

September 15, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. While reading “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” by Michael Lewis, I never once considered what it might look like as a movie.  And I am the kind of guy who looks at a mailbox and wonders if a movie about a mailman might be interesting (Costner proved me wrong).  If you are a baseball fan, you should see this movie. If you are not a baseball fan, the movie works very well as a metaphor for any business maverick who takes a risk and analyzes their company or industry from an entirely new perspective. The game of baseball was over a hundred years old when Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane and friends turned the institution on its ear.

Mr. Lewis spent most of the 2002 season with the Oakland team and had full access to GM Billy Beane, Asst GM Paul DePodesta, and their process in putting together a team that would contend for the American League title … all under the severe handicap of ridiculous salary constraints placed by team owners.

 In this movie, Brad Pitt is spot on as Beane – the cocky, tobacco spitting former jock trying desperately to put his stamp on the institution of baseball. Due to some lawsuit of which I know nothing, the DePodesta role is renamed Peter Brand and is played by Jonah Hill, who looks absolutely nothing like Mr. DePodesta (who played baseball at Harvard). Despite this, Mr. Hill does an terrific job of becoming the statistical whiz who can analyze data and place value on players … a skill he is obsessed with even 10 years later.

 Watching Beane trying to communicate the point of change to the old school scouts is simply priceless and painful. Years of scouting based on body type and girlfriend ranking is replaced by statistical data spit out by Brand’s computer. The real fun comes when the team’s field Manager, Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), flashes his bah-humbug attitude, bucks Beane’s system and continues coaching old school … from the gut. It’s not until Beane takes away all other options that Howe is forced to follow the new plan.

Baseball fans know that Bill James is the godfather of sabermetrics in baseball. I was happy to see him receive props in the movie.  For years his formulas and calculations were ignored and scoffed at by owners, managers and scouts. Thanks to the A’s success, ALL teams now utilize some form of sabermetrics combined with old fashioned scouting. Every measurable event in a game is tracked and results are analyzed. Many fans say it has sucked the joy out of the game. Others say it has provided opportunities for players previously ignored. I prefer to look at it as the same in any industry … everyone looks for a competitive advantage. Never ignore a tool or approach that can make your company more profitable or your team more competitive.

Being a long time Texas Ranger fan, I must mention some of the ties to this story. The Rangers current manager, Ron Washington (portrayed by Brent Jennings), was an infield coach on those Oakland A’s and gets a few scenes. Grady Fuson was the Head Scout for the A’s and later came to the Rangers as co-GM or Asst GM (depending who you ask) but had a very limited stay. Mike Venafro was a relief pitcher for the A’s who gets traded in 2002 so they can pick up a more valued reliever to take his spot (Rincon). It should also be noted that current Rangers GM Jon Daniels and his talented staff have a place for sabermetrics and their formula has worked.

The director of the movie is Bennett Miller, who was responsible for the excellent Capote, which also starred Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Bennett’s DP here is Wally Pfister, who works frequently with the great Christopher Nolan. Pfister’s camera work is superb. The amazing writing team of Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin provide a script with sharp dialogue and just enough baseball lingo so that everyone can follow. Supporting actors include: Chris Pratt (“Parks & Recreation”) as Scott Hatteberg, poster child for sabermetrics; Robin Wright as Beane’s ex-wife; and fantastic writer/director Spike Jonze (came0) as Wright’s zenned-out new husband and the polar opposite of Beane.

 I need to make a point about the performance of Jonah Hill. His movies Superbad and Get Him to the Greek are not my type of movies so I was never a big fan. That changed when I saw Cyrus last year. During the Q&A after this screening, Mr. Hill pointed out that Cyrus was the bridge that allowed him to be cast in this movie … his bridge to drama. He went on to state that his acting heroes are Dustin Hoffman and Bill Murray because they have had successful careers in both comedy and drama. I can honestly say that it is easy to see Jonah Hill having a Bill Murray type career, especially since he has now lost so much weight – a significant weight loss after the filming of Moneyball. He is no longer the funny fat guy. He is a talented actor.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are drawn to movies about visionaries OR you are a baseball fan and/or business person

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for over-the-top action sequences or a pure baseball flick

watch the trailer: