See him now in The Irishman.
Martin Scorsese has finally married the two sides of his personality: the one who delights in showing us the excess of sin (think: Wolf of Wall Street) and the one who is concerned about the state of our souls (think: Silence). It has taken him some 25 films and 77 years to get here, which is possibly why this film lacks the verve of his other gangster movies. The Irishman is mournful – perhaps even an elegy.
The films revolves around Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) in his position as hitman for the Bufalino crime family. There are three distinct timelines in the film: 1. old man Sheeran recounting his crimes at the end of his life; 2. middle aged Sheeran on a road trip with mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and their wives; 3. “young”ish Sheeran as he meets Russell, befriends Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), starts a family and makes a living putting bullets through people’s heads. Scorsese navigates between these timelines with relative ease (shout-out to editor extraordinaire Thelma Schoonmaker!), though it does take some time and attention to get used to. He keeps the camerawork clean and businesslike, almost as if the camera were just a fly on the wall, observing unobtrusively.
De Niro et al are given the “de-aging” CGI treatment so they can play the parts in all 3 timelines, which is not my preference. I’ve seen de-aging used well (meaning sparingly, like Carrie Fisher in Star Wars) but De Niro always looks a little off, and the trouble doubles when he’s got his shirt off. Plus it’s startling when De Niro is meant to be doing something more physical. When Frank is meant to be stomping on someone lying in the street, De Niro may have a young face but his kicks are that of an old man (the actor is 76). But his performance is quite good, and complex, and possibly the least showy of his career. Which is polar opposite to what Al Pacino does in the film, and I’m still not certain what to think of that. On the one hand, I do believe Hoffa was a bit of a ham himself. On the other hand, Pacino’s acting seems to have devolved into an over-the-top impression of himself. I’m not even sure it’s conscious. I’m not even sure he could stop. Although I confess I could watch him scrape the bottom of an ice cream sundae while screaming “cocksucker!” all day long, and at 3.5 hours, I pretty much feel like I did. His volume’s turned up to 11, and when it crashes into De Niro’s coiled repression, gosh, what a sight. What a symphony.
Scorsese seasons the story with all kinds of various wiseguys and goombas (Bobby Cannavale, Jesse Plemmons, Stephen Graham, Ray Romano, and not least of all, Harvey Keitel) and it makes a fair point about how Frank views the world: there are friends, and there are acquaintances. He can make peace with having to whack a mere acquaintance. But tighter ties would be a problem. He keeps people at a distance, or at least that’s the justification. The truth is, Frank is a sociopath and throughout the film we watched as his humanity is leeched from him. The money might be good, folks, but the job does take its toll. But Sheeran is such a stoic, melt into the background guy that we never see it. He is scary because we don’t ever know what makes him tick, what motivates him. If he has any inner life at all, we can only guess.
Meanwhile, mortality emerges as Scorsese’s other major theme, and it’s one we imagine hits quite close to home for him. Frank is looking back on his life, confessing his sins – but does he feel remorse? Can he feel anything at all? Frank has four daughters but at the end of his life, he’s fixated on Peggy (Anna Paquin), the one who won’t speak to him. Peggy is one of the few female characters in the film (sure there are “wives” but they’re about as important and present as background actors) and she says almost nothing. Her silence is judgment, revulsion. She has seen her father for who he is and she wants nothing to do with him. Even as a small child she has always felt the same about Russell Bufalino no matter how hard he bribe her with gifts; Peggy is in many ways the moral centre of the film, alarming since she’s on screen for about a total of 4 minutes out of the film’s 209. Speaking of Bufalino, Pesci does a startlingly good job of portraying a man who has completely blurred the boundaries between work and evil that he is absolutely, coldly, rotten to the core and doesn’t even seem to know it. This may be the stand-out performance of the film for me.
This all sounds like some pretty epic, pretty heavy stuff, and it is, but at times it’s also funny, surprisingly so. Most of the characters are introduced to us with one important statistic: the date and manner of their death. On their own it’s often quite comedic, but time after time, bullet after bullet, death clearly stalks them all. And when the bullets run out, time starts cutting them down, and old age is often more brutal than violence. It’s slower, and crueler. In the end it’s coming for Frank too, and he’s left to face it alone, everyone else either dead or just done with him. Does he regret his choices? Does he even believe they were choices? The story is based on a memoir that’s fairly contested in terms of facts, but Scorsese isn’t interested in the history, he’s interested in the allegory, and, at this stage of his career it must be said, the legacy. Whereas his earlier gangster movies left a more glamourous impression, The Irishman leaves no room for doubt: mob life is no life at all.
In The Royal Tenenbaums, Eli Cash, played by Owen Wilson, writes a book and describes it thusly: “Well, everyone knows Custer died at Little Bighorn. What this book presupposes is… maybe he didn’t.” It’s a great line. It kills me. And Owen Wilson passes it off so well.
Quentin Tarantino seems to have had a similar bug up his bum when he wrote Once Upon A Time In…Hollywood.
This review is a little…late, and while, yes, we were happily at the cottage when it came out, we have not been in a hurry to see it since we got home either, and in fact only saw it this past weekend because it was playing in the right time slot. Had Dora been playing at that time, I would have happily-ish seen that instead. The truth is, I’m kind of over Quentin Tarantino. I just don’t feel like racism is the price I want to pay to see his films. $12? Fine. Gratuitous use of the n-word? No thanks.
And while it’s impossible to say this film is racism-free (it isn’t), it’s not the film’s biggest problem. Sean and I just found it…boring.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton, a washed up TV star struggling to stay relevant. Dalton is a fictional amalgam of several stars of that era. He was a big star on a western television series a decade ago but now he’s lucky to guest star as the heavy on single, sporadic episodes. He drowns his sorrows in a pitcher of whiskey sours. His one time stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is now mostly his driver…and sometime handyman. He seems pretty content with his lot, his laid-back surfer dude persona disguising his continued ability to kick some serious ass.
Rick Dalton just happens to be living slightly beyond his means next to Roman Polanski in the Benedict Canyon neighbourhood of Los Angeles. Polanski is off filming a movie, leaving behind his 8 months pregnant wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), and several houseguests…including the man who continued to love her despite her recent marriage to someone else, Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch).
Sharon Tate bops around town while Quentin Tarantino fixates on her legs…and eventually, her dirty feet. Margot Robbie is the picture of youth and health and vitality and promise. But other than as a symbol, she has little to do in the movie. She was few lines and little screen time. Once Upon A Time In…Hollywood is only tangentially about the Manson Family murders. It’s mostly Tarantino’s love letter to old Hollywood, and in that respect, it’s a good one. There’s lots of period cars and neon lights and references to old-timey movies and actors (Damian Lewis appears as Steve McQueen). But the movie acts mostly as a vehicle for DiCaprio and Pitt, indulging in lengthy scenes that are great testaments to their acting abilities…but don’t really serve a greater story. One flashback scene is so long and absorbing, Sean literally forgot it was a flashback scene, and then the story just spits us back out where we belong – it’s interesting, sure, but it corroborates a single, throw-away detail, which makes it totally irrelevant. This film is 161 minutes long…it didn’t exactly need any padding. I would normally suggest the story needed some good editing, but I think the real problem is that Tarantino isn’t sure exactly where the story is. He’s got a series of good ideas but no cohesive narrative into which he can plug them.
DiCaprio and Pitt are acting their little tushies off though. Pitt in particular. He steals every scene he’s in. When he, a 55 year old man, takes off his shirt, revealing an extremely fit physique, it earns whistles and applause in nearly every theatre it screens in. Arguably, old man abs are not exactly acting…but he backs them up charm and dynamism.
This puzzle had many attractive pieces. But some puzzles, when you finish them, you spackle them with glue to frame and hang on your wall. Others you merely break apart and put back into the box…where it will collect dust until you sell it in a yard sale, usually at least one piece short. Once Upon A Time In…Hollwood is the second kind of puzzle. It’s fine. It’s just not great.
Scars are a movie shorthand. Bad guys often have visible scars, gruesomely healed. Austin Powers’ Dr. Evil has a huge scar, from the corner of his right eye down to his jaw. Freddy Krueger from Nightmare on Elm Street is extensively scarred. Staff Sergeant Bob Barnes in Platoon has a face meant to tell you how crazy he is, right from the start. Most but not all of the scars on this list are found on villains, but in real life scars can criss-cross the bodies of all kinds of people, even, occasionally, good ones. Scars are portraits of courage and bravery, reminders of stupid decisions, the markers of time and change. My left arm was left completely scarred after a car accident; oddly, it is NOT the arm covered in ink (okay, it’s partially covered in ink). They make me a little sad, but also a lot grateful: scars mean you’re still alive.
The Joker: I suppose there are probably dozens of back stories as to how The Joker got his scars, but I love how Chris Nolan approaches them in The Dark Knight. The Joker himself tells several vastly different tales involving their provenance, which reveals nothing about their true nature, but tonnes about his sanity. The way he accents the scars with makeup makes us think he’s proud of them. He wants them to be noticed. Perhaps he wants us to believe they’re self-inflicted. Perhaps they are.
Tony Montana: It’s inevitable that a character nicknamed ‘Scarface’ will make this list. Tony is blasé about his scar, laughing it off, attributing it to his youth but never getting specific. It’s obviously a reminder of the past he left behind, and it’s a focal point to his enemies, something that makes him look scary and intimidating, perhaps warning them that he’s capable of violence. But in true Tony spirit, he addresses his scar only thusly: “You should see the other kid; you can’t recognize him.” I bet that’s true.
Harry Potter: Harry got his distinctive lightning-bolt scar in a failed murder attempt, when Lord Voldemort put a killing curse on him (his mother’s sacrifice saved him from death, but he would bear the mark of the attack). The scar is legendary among the magic set, and it tingles whenever the Dark Lord is near. It wasn’t just a warning system, but a link to what Voldemort was thinking and feeling – actually a small piece of his soul, yearning to escape. Which is pretty crazy.
Edward Scissorhands: Edward’s face (and not just his face) is covered with fine scars, the obvious result of learning the hard way how to live with scissors for hands. They aren’t terrible to look at, and actually give him a sympathetic look, reminding us of his hardships. Since the movie skewers conformity, Edward’s scars are just another thing that set him apart.
Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson: Randy shows stripper Cassidy some of the many scars he’s accumulated over his years in the ring as ‘The Ram’ in The Wrestler. His broken body is a good indication of his mental state as well, beat down and tired. “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed” Marissa Tomei quotes from the Old Testament. But his worst scar is yet to come: he undergoes bypass surgery on his heart, leaving the tell-tale scar down his chest, a constant reminder that his heart can no longer take the stress of his career. He’s forced into retirement, but can’t quite commit to it.
Marv: Sin City’s Marv puts Mickey Rourke on this list twice, ironic considering his own not-insignificant scars. In the 1990s he took up boxing, and had to have lots of reconstructive surgery as a result – two broken noses, a smashed cheekbone – but admittedly went to the wrong doctor to put things right. Finally, after massive amounts of plastic surgery, he’s starting to look good again. Regardless, in Sin City, Rourke’s face is covered in prosthetic scars. Marv is supposed to be too “ugly” to attract the opposite sex, which is why his relationship with Nancy is so pure and good, and highly cherished by him.
Scar: In Lion King, Mustafa’s brother is marked for evil by eye-skimming scar that leaves him disfigured. The movie doesn’t tell us how he got it, but we do know he’s defined by it, bearing its nickname.
Gill: Gill has terrible scarring to his face and fins after an escape attempt left him badly
wounded by dental tools. Voiced by Willem Dafoe, Finding Nemo’s Gill seems dark and brooding because of his scars, but we come to understand that they’re a symbol of his fight for freedom, and what the fish are willing to risk in order to be free.
Inigo Montoya: “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” A mysterious man with 6 fingers attacked Inigo’s father, and presumably Inigo’s scar is from that same fight. His greatest wish is to avenge his father’s death, and he spends much of The Princess Bride pursuing the man who left so many scars in his wake.
Darth Vader: Vader’s scars represent his turn from annoying emo brat to pure evil. As the ghost of Obi-Wan tells Luke: “When your father clawed his way out of that fiery pool, the change had been burned into him forever – he was Darth Vader, without a trace of Anakin Skywalker. Irredeemably dark. Scarred.” Those scars are kept underneath a menacing helmet for much of the series, but when that helmet comes off, oof: impact.
On Monday, I attended the North American premiere of Spotlight, an entertaining and infuriating film about four reporters at the Boston Globe who investigated the Catholic Church’s cover-up of sexual abuse at the hands of their priests. Seeing the likes of Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, and Liev Schreiber walk onstage was exciting enough but the good people at TIFF really brought the house down with the surprise appearance of the real Pulitizer Prize-wnning journalists themselves to, of course, a standing ovation and a speech from Ruffalo about “unsung heroes”.
Somehow, as usual, Wandering Through the Shevles seems to know what’s going on in my life because this week we’re paying tribute to these “unsung heroes”.
All the President’s Men (1976)– Pretty much every movie about investigative journalism that I’ve ever loved has been compared to this movie. “In the tradition of All the Presidents Men”, the TIFF website wrote of Spotlight. It’s been years since I’ve seen this story of the two Washington Post reporters who investigated the Watergate scandal but what has stayed with me is the way that it manages to hold our attention and build suspense from behind a desk. Instead of car chases, we get phone calls, research, and checking sources. It doesn’t hurt that the journalists are impeccably played by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman.
The Insider (1999)– In his best film by far, Michael Mann tells the story of 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman’s battle with the brass at CBS to get his interview with a whistleblower against Big Tobacco on the air. Having Al Pacino’s and Russell Crowe’s names above the title wouldn’t be as exciting today but Mann was lucky enough to catch both actors in their prime. Only Crowe managed to earn an Oscar nomination from his performance but the great Christopher Plummer (doing an uncanny Mike Wallace) was somehow overlooked.
Zodiac (2007)– This movie scares the shit out of me. The murder scenes are as chilling as they come but David Fincher’s return to the serial killer subgenre isn’t really about the Zodiac killer at all but about a small group of people who became obsessed with finding him and practically had their lives ruined as a restult. Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr. do some top-notch reporting (even though Gyllenhaal is employeed only as an editorial cartoonist). What’s most impressive about Zodiac is the ammount of information they throw at us without it being impossible to follow and how much of the information we already knew without it being boring.
There’s nothing like cop week to get the dirty taste of dance movies out of your mouth! Thanks Wandering Through the Shelves for sponsoring yet another thoughtful Thursday theme, and for giving me the perfect excuse for subjecting my wife to all the explodey movies she normally turns her cute little nose up at.
Bad Boys: Mike & Marcus (Will Smith & Martin Lawrence) are two “loose cannon” cops, not to mention best friends, who spend so much time together they sound like an old married couple – the kind constantly threatening to get a divorce. But damn if they don’t pull together in times of trouble! Legend has it that this script was originally intended for Jon Lovitz and Dana Carvey – now just imagine that movie for a minute, if you will.
Heat: Bank robbers start to feel “the heat” from cops when their latest robbery turns out to be a little sloppy. Lieutenant Al Pacino is on to them but Robert De Niro needs one last heist before he can retire (isn’t that always the way?). Then of course De Niro makes his fatal mistake – he goes against the golden rule ‘Never have anything in your life that you can’t walk out on in thirty seconds flat, if you spot the heat coming around the corner.’
Die Hard: It’s Die Hard, what else do you have to say? It’s Christmas AND he’s off duty (plus he’s NYPD visiting LA), but John McClane (Bruce Willis) is still a bad-ass motherfucker who will single-handedly END YOU.
I watched a lot of cop movies this week and it turns out that a lot of my favourite jams just happen to have cops in them. Actually, if you look hard enough, probably there’s a cop or two in nearly every movie. There were cops in dance movie Billy Elliot, and cops in teen comedy Superbad, and more cops than you can shake a stick at in the black and white movies we watched a while back. They’re everywhere, even in outer space, but above all, they’re immediately below 🙂
Fargo Marge Gunderson is probably my favourite cop-hero of all time. She doesn’t do the ass-slide over the hoods of cars, she doesn’t use karate to subdue perps twice her size, and she doesn’t cause millions of dollars in damage as she careens her car wildly through populated city streets. She’s just a quiet woman getting er done – you know, kind of like a real cop would do. Frances McDormand is crazy-talented, and I love watching her waddle through this movie with her quaint sense of humour, her helmet hair, the meals she shares with her husband. She doesn’t thump her chest or swing her dick around but she’s persistent and dogged and we enjoy watching her unravel this case – poor used car salesman Jerry (William H. Macy); he never really stood a chance against such a humbly formidable opponent.
The Departed This one is kind of on the other end of the spectrum, isn’t it? Two young cops join the force – one, Matt Damon, has a pristine record but works as a mole for mob boss Jack Nicholson. The other, Leonardo DiCaprio, comes from a rough background which helps him go deep under cover, infiltrating the gang, and feeding information back to the only two cops who know he’s actually a good guy – Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg. What ends up happening is that these two chase each other, relentlessly trying to uncover the mole while staying hidden themselves. It’s tense, degrading work, and losing means you pay with your life. Honestly, my favourite cop is probably the one played by Mark Wahlberg. He just goes so off the hook, unpredictable, balls to the wall, you have to admire it. The ending leads me to believe that he’s not clean. But is he a disgruntled ex-cop gone rogue or is he somebody’s rat? Either way, “If a gun is pointed at you, it doesn’t matter if you’re a cop or a criminal.”
21 Jump Street Aaaaaand switching gears again, one of my favourite cop buddy movies of recent years, and probably ever (although, for the record, I also super love Hot Fuzz, and if Matt hadn’t jumped on it, I’d have tried my best to beat Sean to it). This movie is self-referential and mocks the very genre it masters, but it’s never a mere homage. It’s smarter than a spoof, much like Hot Fuzz I suppose, and isn’t afraid to pay respect to its roots, embracing them even, and making them part of the fun. There’s never a moment when the film stops winking at us, trading in the cop movie clichés for cops in bike shorts doing slow-speed chases through grass, having cases thrown out on sad technicalities (“You have the right to remain an attorney.” – “Well, you DO have the right to be an attorney if you want to.”), bullet-riddled tankers that somehow fail to explode. I didn’t like Channing Tatum before this, and I still only like him in this (and I believe that includes the sequel) but for some reason the chemistry between he and Jonah Hill just really works.
As long as I can rembmer, I wanted to be a cop. I used to play cops and robbers in the schoolyard- usually with people who didn’t even know they were playing. When I was about to 12 I had to rethink my career goals when I realized that my eyesight wasn’t nearly good enough and would never be able to drive a car or see who I’m shooting at but the dream was fun while it lasted. I didn’t know much about police work back then but I did watch a lot of cop movies. Thanks to Wandering Through the Shelves for giving me an excuse to revisit them this week.
In the Heat of the Night (1967)- In the Heat of the Night is nearly 50 years old but its oepning scenes couldn’t be timelier. There’s been a murder in Sparta, Mississippi and the police go out and arrest the first black man they see. Of course, the suspect turns out to be an off-duty Philadelphia homicide detective who they call Mr. Tibbs. If Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger’s characters ever managed to become buddies, this would have been a contender for the best cop buddy movie of all time. Instead, What we get instead is much more interesting- a classic that manages to say a lot about race relations in the deep South in a time where you had to pretty careful what you said about race in the deep South. Best of all, it never forgets to deliver an engaging murder mystery
Hot Fuzz (2007)– According to TV ads, Hot Fuzz is “from the guys who have watched every action movie ever made”. Satire works best when a writer understands its subject so Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg were smart enough to take aim at a genre that they clearly knew well- and loved! Pegg plays a big city cop witha love of police work who is paired with a smalltown cop with a love of police movies (espeically Bad Boys 2). You can feel the love for buddy movies in almost every scene as Wright does his best to recreate the look and feel of a mainstream action movie and filling it with unexpected laugh-out loud moments throughout. To me, this is still pegg and Wright’s funniest movie.
Se7en (1995)– Between Sean and I, we have three picks from 1995 – a year that seems to have been a golden age for cop movies. Unlike most movies about serial killers, the cops (played of course by Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt)- not the killings- are the focus. Freeman, days away from retirement, has lost faith in humanity long before John Doe’s first killing and Pitton his first week on the job, still believes he can make a difference. Over the course of one week and seven brutal killings, both men will have to examine their beliefs. Se7en also has the distinction of being the first film in director David Fincher’s twenty-year winning streak. The final “What’s in the box?” scene is so powerful that even Pitt’s overacting couldn’t derail it.
Danny Collins (Al Pacino) is a tired and aged pop singer, still swiveling his arthritic hips in the direction of the slutty octogenarians in the front row of his sold-out concerts. But in the quiet moments backstage it’s just him and his girdle, and it’s taking more and more coke to get him to sing the saccharine lyrics of his greatest hits.
His best friend and manager (Christopher Plummer) is delighted to present him with a birthday gift – a letter to him from John Lennon that went undelivered for 40 years. The letter’s a great find but ultimately it makes Danny feel like shit. He knows he’s sold out. Now he also feels like he’s wasted his life, and his talent. So like any elderly rock star having a lightbulb moment, the takes off to New Jersey, where the grown son he never met lives (Bobby Canavale) and the hotel managers are oh-so-fine (Annette Bening).
The first trailer I saw for this movie made me want to give it a miss, but a second look caught my attention. The quips sounded smart. They had good patter. Turns out, it’s written and directed by Dan Fogelman, who wrote Crazy, Stupid Love, which wasn’t half bad. And neither is this.
The problem is, you know what’s going to happen. You know exactly what’s going to happen. You know not only the outcome, but the probable trajectory. But thanks to a surprisingly stirring performance by Al Pacino, who’s backed up by a really solid supporting cast. This movie just worked for me. Al Pacino was ON. For years now he’s thrived on doing a bad SNL-type impersonation of himself, and it turned me off, and away. But he IS Danny Collins. This movie isn’t as good as The Wrestler, or Birdman, but the casting reminded me of those movies, hooking up the perfect actor for a role that feels tailor-made for them. It was fun to watch him embrace the dirty old man. He lays it on thick and Annette Bening keeps scraping it off and flinging it back at him. But it’s earnest. It’s fun. Pacino and Bening charm each other, and us in the process. They are relaxed and easy. And so is the movie. It’s not fluff, exactly, but nor does it have the gravitas of The Wrestler. It’s just a really likeable film, and i think it may have just made Al Pacino a movie star again.