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

Underfire: The Untold Story of PFC Tony Vaccaro


Sleepers in unquiet graves.

Sleepers in unquiet graves.

(2016) Documentary (HBO) Tony Vaccaro, James Estrin, Tyler Hicks, Alex Kershaw, Michel Lepourty, Anne Wilkes Tucker, John G. Morris, Sam Tannenbaum, Mike Forster, Lynsey Addario. Directed by Max Lewkowicz

 

Soldiers are a special sort of breed, one to be admired immensely. Not only are they willing to lay down their lives for their country but they often return home damaged – particularly during times of war. They are forced to do things that go against everything they are taught (i.e. Thou Shalt Not Kill) and they see things – horrible things – that reflect humanity at its absolute worst.

Tony Vaccaro was barely out of high school when he was drafted to serve as an infantryman in the Second World War. Orphaned at a young age in Italy, he left that country and moved to New Rochelle, NY when the Fascists took over. While in high school, he developed an interest in photography and when he was drafted, applied to the Army Signal Corps to take photographs for them. He was turned down, told that he was too young for the Signal Corps. “I’m too young to take pictures,” he reflects in the documentary about his 272 days in the service of his country during which he took more than eight thousand photographs, “But not too young to kill.”

He took pictures of weary servicemen, resting for a moment after marching or fighting. He took pictures of men being shredded by shrapnel. He took pictures of burned tanks, the burned driver on the ground beside it. He took pictures of shell-shocked civilians and grateful French children kissing G.I.s. Many of his pictures come with incredible stories.

At one point he finds a soldier frozen in the snow. Curious as to whom the victim was, he is horrified to discover it is Henry Tannenbaum, a childhood friend. Years later, Tannenbaum’s son Sam saw the picture of his father at an exhibition of Vaccaro’s work and called up the photographer. When Tony found out who was on the other end of the line, he wept but for Tannenbaum, the picture gave him some closure and made his father, whom he had no memory of, more real to him. The two men became friends and visited the site where Tony found Henry’s body. Ironically, the place is now a Christmas tree farm (Tannenbaum is Christmas Tree in German).

One of the hardest photographs he ever took was that of a German woman, who had been raped and murdered by Allied troops after she’d been found with a bazooka, and then stabbed in her vagina with a bayonet. At first Tony was horrified and he removed the blade and covered the dead woman up. However, he went back and put her back the way she was when he found her and snapped the picture before then covering up the body and removing the blade once again. He had set out to document his experiences and he felt it wouldn’t be true to his mission if he didn’t document that as well, but he remarked it would be the most difficult of all the pictures he’d shot, including that of Tannenbaum.

In an era where photographs were routinely staged, Vaccaro’s pictures stand out because they were real. While sometimes soldiers would refuse to have their pictures taken by outside photographers, Tony was trusted. He was one of them, a brother. They would pose for him sure but they also allowed him to turn his cameras on them when they were fighting for their lives and the lives of their brothers. No other photographer in any war, before or since, has gotten as close to the soldiers fighting it as Vaccaro did. The incredible pictures he took reflect that. War is undoubtedly hell, the kind of hell that only those who have been to the front lines of war can understand. The photographs of Tony Vaccaro help those who have never been to war to gain at least a little bit of understanding.

Vaccaro is front and center here and he reminisces about some of the things he took pictures at from the places he took them in 70 years later. We see him on the beach at Normandy where he was part of the Allied invasion on Omaha Beach; the quaint French village which was largely untouched by the fighting; the woods where a horrific battle was fought. His memory is incredibly clear for a 94-year-old man.

His interviews are augmented by commentary by contemporary combat photographers who are singularly admiring of the job Vaccaro did, often going from firing his M-1 rifle to grabbing his camera and snapping pictures. In one incredible moment entitled “The Last Step of John Rose” an infantryman throws both hands in the air as a mortar explodes behind him. Shrapnel is already lancing through his body and with his next step he will crumple to the ground. “Suddenly, life comes to an end and gravity takes you,” Vaccaro reflects. “Giving up life, we all go down to earth again. All of us.”

After the war, Vaccaro stayed in Europe, unable to return home. He was caught in the grip of what is now called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, although they didn’t discuss such things then. He put his negatives in storage and left them there until recently; even though he had documented his experiences, he was not disposed to sharing them although eventually he did. He would eventually continue following his passion for photography, becoming a fashion and celebrity photographer for Life magazine and others.

But despite a lifetime photographing beautiful things and beautiful people, he remains close to the pictures that haunted him from the time he took them until now. “There is beauty in tragedy,” one of the commentators intones and there is truth in that. The picture of a frozen soldier in the snow is awful to contemplate but has a certain serene beauty to it that is hard to ignore. So is this documentary, which is worth looking into.

REASONS TO GO: The photographs are absolutely extraordinary. Vaccaro is still emotional about his time on the front lines and that emotion only enhances the film.
REASONS TO STAY: Those sensitive to death and mayhem may find the photographs too disturbing.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some profanity some gruesome images of war and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The Argus C3 35mm camera that Vaccaro used throughout the war cost him $47.50 as a used (or secondhand) camera back in 1942.
BEYOND THE THEATER: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fury
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Collateral Beauty

The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader


The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Anyone who says there are no stars in Voyage of the Dawn Treader is crazy!

(2010) Fantasy (Fox Walden) Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, Ben Barnes, Will Poulter, Liam Neeson (voice), Simon Pegg (voice), Gary Sweet, Laura Brent, Bille Brown, Bruce Spence, Terry Norris, Colin Moody, Tilda Swinton, Anna Popplewell, William Moseley, Shane Rangi, Arthur Angel, Arabella Morton, Rachel Blakely. Directed by Michael Apted

When we sail for unknown waters, it takes a certain amount of fortitude. Not only do you never know quite what to expect, but it’s also likely that you won’t return the same way you left.

Lucy (Henley) and Edmund (Keynes) Pevensie remain in England during the Blitz while brother Peter (Moseley) and sister Susan (Popplewell) go off to America – apparently because they’re older, they deserve greater safety. Lucy and Edmund are packed off to Cambridge where they are rooming with their despicable cousin Eustace Scrubb (Poulter) who is an insufferable know-it-all and quite the twit. Edmund would like nothing better than to punch him in the face, but prefers to try and join up for the British Army, although he is too young by a couple of years.

He is frustrated because as a King in Narnia, he has fought wars against superior forces and led armies into battle but here on Earth he is just a silly boy. Lucy is the embodiment of the Stiff Upper Lip but she is deeply insecure about her looks; while Susan is already a bit of a stunner, Lucy feels invisible and ignored by comparison.

When the nautical painting in the bedroom Edmund shares with Eustace begins to change and a Narnian-looking ship appears on the horizon, Lucy realizes magical forces are work and a call back to the magical land is just around the corner. Eustace has always pooh-poohed their talk of Narnia and thinks them barking mad. He’s about to find out how wrong he is.

The sea floods out of the painting and into the bedroom; rather than opening the door or window and escaping the children essentially wait for the room to fill up before swimming to the surface and being greeted by the flagship of Narnia’s fleet, the Dawn Treader. On board is good Prince Caspian..err, King Caspian (Barnes) who is searching for seven lord of Telmar that supported his father but then had to flee for their lives. They carried with them seven magic swords that Aslan (Neeson) had given the Narnians for protection. They don’t know it but they are about to need them.

The two Pevensies are overjoyed to be back in Narnia; Eustace not so much. He thinks that everyone and everything not named Eustace are complete idiots and utterly lacking in…well, anything useful. He is basically the ultimate spoiled brat, a precursor to Dudley Dursley from the Harry Potter series, only far more venal and wretched.

Also aboard is the swashbuckling Reepicheep (Pegg), the mouse with the gentlemanly mien and the bold attitude. He becomes something of a mentor to Eustace, although of course Eustace detests him at first. There’s more involving a malevolent green mist, an island that is the embodiment of evil and a blue star that is in fact not a star but you get my drift. Eustace also turns into a dragon, a Lord turns into gold and the Dawn Treader will battle a vicious sea serpent before the final credits.

This is based on the third in the six-book series by C.S. Lewis which was meant to be Christian allegories as well as morality lessons for children. Amazingly, both of those aspects of the books were left intact in all three of the movies (much more overtly here).

However, there’s a new director in town; Apted, who has previously directed Coal Miner’s Daughter and The World Is Not Enough. This is kind of a new genre for him and he does a great job, never allowing the special effects to overwhelm the movie but using them when he needs to. While the effects aren’t particularly groundbreaking, they are serviceable – the sea serpent particularly at the end is hideous and scary.

Part of the problem with the first two movies is that the acting wasn’t up to the level of the Harry Potter movies. The child stars were all a bit on the wooden side; thankfully, Keynes has gotten much better and Henley as well, although she still can be annoying in places. Poulter, who was in the indie film Son of Rambow was actually really good, bringing out both the awful and redeemed sides of Eustace nicely.

Barnes also gets to shed the ill-advised Spanish accent of Prince Caspian and comes off much more mature and far more likable here. While the character tends to be much more of a second banana to the Pevensies than perhaps he should be, nonetheless Barnes makes the most of what he has to work with. My only wish is that Apted had let Caspian’s feelings for his father get a little more attention; that was an interesting subplot that seemed to go nowhere really.

I actually liked this film better than the first two and even better than TRON: Legacy to be honest. The books were a big part of my childhood, being a lover of fantasy and science fiction from an early age as I was. Seeing these films is a bit like going home, Dawn Treader a bit more than even the first two (and I thought The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was a good solid movie). While the box office numbers have been underwhelming for a movie with this kind of budget, I’m hoping that it makes enough to warrant the making of The Silver Chair. This might well be the most entertaining movie of the holiday season, far more so than the overly grim and overwhelming Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 and a little bit more than the uneven TRON: Legacy. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear like the audiences are giving it the chance it deserves.

REASONS TO GO: The best of the series so far. Poulter brings the horrible Eustace Scrubb to life. Barnes has improved 100% as Caspian.

REASONS TO STAY: Not really groundbreaking effects work and Henley remains a work in progress.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some scenes that are probably too scary for younger, more impressionable children (particularly during the sea serpent battle) but by and large, perfect movie material for most kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Simon Pegg as Reepicheep replaces Eddie Izzard who voiced the cavalier mouse in The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian.

HOME OR THEATER: This may sound a bit strange but as big a movie as this is, I don’t know that the epic scope is diminished on the smaller screen. I usually recommend the multiplex for movies like this but it might be just as well for you to see it at home.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and The Quill begins!