The Irishman


I heard he paints houses.

(2019) Gangster (NetflixRobert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Anna Paquin, Stephen Graham, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Jack Huston, Katherine Narducci, Jesse Plemons, Domenick Lombardozzi, Paul Herman, Gary Basaraba, Marin Ireland, Lucy Gallina, Jonathan Morris, Jim Norton, Aleksa Paladino. Directed by Martin Scorsese

 

Much of the American fascination with the mob can be traced to Coppola’s The Godfather saga and the films of Martin Scorsese. If you take Mean Streets, GoodFellas, Casino and The Departed as part of the same franchise, The Irishman may well be the concluding episode in the saga.

This film, which has been winning the kind of effusive praise from critics normally reserved for pictures of their grandkids, follows the story of Frank Sheeran (De Niro), who went from being a war hero during the Second World War to a refrigerated truck driver, to a thug in the Philadelphia mob run by Russell Buffalino (Pesci)  to the bodyguard and right hand man of Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). We see Sheeran transverse the glory days of the mob, covering the late 40s all the way up until the mid-70s. While there are references to watershed moments in the history of American organized crime, this isn’t really a primer on the subject; rather, it is the point of view of an insider, one whose claims as to the disappearance of Hoffa – still considered unsolved to this day – are perhaps self-aggrandizing but there is at least some evidence that says it might have happened the way it’s depicted here.

I am being purposely vague as to the plot points because this is an intensely long movie – right around three and a half hours. While as of this writing it is still in certain select theaters around the country, and in all honesty, it should be seen on a big ass screen with a big ass booming sound system, the length makes this kind of prohibitive. Those who have short attention spans won’t be able to tolerate this and those of us who have mobility issues might find it preferable to watch this at home on Netflix, where it just debuted Thanksgiving eve.

Scorsese doesn’t skimp on the cast, with De Niro and Pacino as powerful as they have ever been in the film. Pacino, in fact, may count this alongside Michael Corleone and Tony Montana as the roles that will mark the absolute apex of his distinguished and memorable career. His fans will be delighted to watch this; those who can take or leave him can watch this and understand why others consider him one of the most gifted actors of his generation.

Not that Pesci and De Niro are slouches by any means. Pesci was lured out of retirement (he hadn’t made an onscreen appearance since 2010) which is a godsend; I truly missed the man as an actor, with his charming sense of humor and occasional fits of rage. Here he is much more subdued and plays Buffalino as a more reserved and restrained Don who is smart enough to keep a low profile but ruthless enough to do whatever is necessary to keep his empire humming along. De Niro, for his part, is De Niro here – explosive and vulnerable in equal parts.

There is a fourth Oscar winner in the cast – Anna Paquin, who plays the adult version of Sheeran’s daughter who adores her Uncle Jimmy Hoffa and takes a wary dislike to Russell, whom her father feels closer to. When Hoffa disappears, she understands that her father was involved in some way and refuses to speak to him again for the rest of his life, which apparently mirrored real life. Paquin only gets a couple of lines but her venomous looks, delighted smiles and eventually sad eyes remind me why she is an Oscar winner and makes me wonder why we don’t see more of her in the movies.

Scorsese utilizes technology in a very un-Scorsese-like manner, using computers to de-age the actors for flashback scenes (all three of the leads are well into their 70s). The technology has advanced to the point where it is actually effective here; the men look truly younger, even more so than Will Smith in Gemini Man. With technology like this, it is bound to alter how movies are made. If you have a role for a 20-something that calls for the kind of emotional depth and acting experience a 20-something actor won’t have, why not cast a veteran actor and de-age them for the role? I can see a lot of drawbacks to this, not the least of which that it will be tougher for young actors to get the kind of experience that propels younger actors into becoming great ones. Still, with the dizzying amount of product out there to fill all of the streaming services and their needs, that point may end up being moot.

Some critics are waxing rhapsodic about The Irishman and proclaim it the best film of the year (it isn’t) and among the best that Scorsese has ever done (it isn’t). There is a bittersweet feel to the movie, particularly in the last 20 minutes as if this is the end of an era, which it likely is. At 77, Scorsese doesn’t show any signs of slowing down; he has already directed one other movie released on Netflix earlier this year, a Bob Dylan documentary with at least another documentary on the music of the 70s in the pipeline. Still, getting the universe to align to get this kind of cast together and to get this kind of film made for the kind of budget it took to get it made isn’t likely to happen again, plus after this I really don’t know if there is much more Scorsese can say about the mob, although I will be the first to temper that with a never say never warning; if there is a story out there to be told, Scorsese can find a way to tell it.

The big problem I have with the film is its aforementioned length. I can understand why Scorsese let it run so long – he may never have the chance to direct something like this with this cast again – but as much as I respect him as perhaps the greatest American director ever, the movie is repetitive in places and quite frankly we could have done without about an hour of it. Watching this is no spring; it’s an endurance contest and you’d best enter into watching it prepared for that. Hydrate regularly, watch from a comfortable seated position and take a few breaks to walk around and get your blood flowing. The magic of Netflix is that you are allowed to do that whenever you like.

In the end, I think this is one of Scorsese’s best movies, but not with the triumvirate that make up his absolute best films – Taxi Driver, GoodFellas and Casino. This is more along the level of Raging Bull, The Departed. Mean Streets and The Wolf of Wall Street. I think most cinephiles are going to see this anyway but if you’re on the fence, I think you should pull the trigger and see what all the fuss is about. After all, if you don’t like it, you can always turn it off and start binging The Rick and Morty Show.

REASONS TO SEE: One of the greatest casts this decade. Scorsese is still Scorsese. A plausible explanation of the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa.
REASONS TO AVOID: Way too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of profanity as well as its fair share of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the longest feature film Scorsese has ever directed and the longest overall to be commercially released in more than 20 years.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/30/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews: Metacritic: 94//100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: GoodFellas
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button


The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Daisy dances her way through life.

(Paramount) Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Julia Ormond, Tilda Swinton, Jason Flemyng, Elias Koteas, Mahershalalhashbaz Ali, Elle Fanning. Directed by David Fincher

One of the constants of our lives is time. It follows a preset course in our perception; we are born, we grow up, we grow old, we die. There is a certain comfort in knowing how that progression will go. However, what if time wasn’t a constant for us all?

Benjamin Button (Pitt), like a modern-day Merlin, doesn’t age; he youthens. He was born an old man in turn of the century New Orleans; his father Thomas (Flemyng), overwhelmed by the death of his wife in childbirth and the double whammy of a peculiar child to boot, leaves him at a home for the aged, to be cared for by Queenie (Henson), a woman with a gigantic heart.

From there on we watch the events of the 20th century through Benjamin’s eyes; also his love affairs with the wife of a Russian diplomat (Swinton) and the love of his life, Daisy (Blanchett) with whom he had more or less grown up with in the home (she was a regular visitor to her grandmother). Daisy becomes a dancer who…well, that would be telling.

Fincher, one of the more innovative directors of our generation, has crafted a movie with astonishing special effects. Not every special effect has to be of aliens and spaceships, y’know. Here, the aging and de-aging of Pitt is mostly done as computer generated imagery, and quite frankly is done so seamlessly that you never believe for a second that it isn’t organic.

There are also some incredible performances here. Pitt does some of the best work of his career as Benjamin, displaying a child-like innocence that is coupled with deep sadness. Button knows his affliction will make him an outsider in life, and so that is what he becomes, someone separate from life, essentially observing but not taking part in so much.

Blanchett is one of the premiere actresses working today, and this is yet another outstanding performance for her resume (she didn’t receive an Oscar nomination for her work, but she easily could have). I’m not sure if Blanchett ever took ballet as a child, but she moves with the lithe grace of a dancer.

Some critics, including a few that I respect very much, complained that the movie wasn’t true to itself and that it was essentially empty at its core. There is some evidence that the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald that inspired the script was written essentially as an exercise but I think that it does make for a fascinating what-if.

What we are dealing with here is the ultimate outsider, someone who violated the laws of nature and the consequences of that violation (even if it is involuntary) are devastating. Benjamin Button knows what his affliction costs him; he will not receive the things in life he desires most. That would make anyone a little bitter. Still, he gains a unique perspective not because of any intellectual difference but simply because of the way others treat him.

The framing sequences take place during Katrina and involve Daisy’s daughter (Ormond) reading to her dying mother from Benjamin’s journal and a backwards running clock created by an eccentric clockmaker (Koteas) in 19th century New Orleans.

There are some amusing bits, including one concerning a man who is struck by lightning multiple times, and some poignant scenes as well – such as Daisy caring for the now-infant Benjamin at the end of his life. Parallels to the horrors of Alzheimer’s disease are certainly at the forefront in my mind as I watch these sequences.

I will say this for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; it is like no other movie I’ve ever seen before and am unlikely to again. In that sense, this is worth seeing just because of its uniqueness; the character of Benjamin Button will stay with you long after the movie is over.

WHY RENT THIS: Amazing special effects and powerful performances from Blanchett and Pitt (the best work of his career to date) make this a must-see.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little gimmicky in places, with actual historic figures interacting with Benjamin a la Forrest Gump.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality here as well as a sprinkling of bad language. There are a couple of violent scenes that may be disturbing to sensitive viewers.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the action in the Fitzgerald story took place in Baltimore, the locale for the movie was switched to New Orleans in order to take advantage of tax benefits offered by the Louisiana Film Commission in the wake of Katrina; also the Daisy character was named Hildegarde Moncrief in the original story; her name was switched in honor of The Great Gatsby.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: While essentially a making-of featurette, the one on the Criterion collection version is so thorough and exhaustive it literally blows every other making-of featurette on every other DVD or Blu-Ray right out of the water. Entitled The Curious Birth of Benjamin Button, it divides the material into three trimesters and a birth and includes nearly three hours of material on nearly every aspect of the production.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $333.9M on a $150M production budget; the movie was profitable.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps