The Irishman – Ramble On

My thoughts on The Irishman will ramble like the film itself.

1- I think no intermission speaks to the lack of chapters, to the lack of big story arcs. Does a movie that’s 209 minutes long need an intermission? Even if you don’t need to use the john, that’s a long time to sit. Longer films of yore had intermissions: Lawrence of Arabia, 2001, Patton, and, it was rumored, The Hateful Eight. But those movies all had significant story movements. Chapters, if you will. Like a novel. Or a good epic/saga-like film. Such sweeps don’t exist in The Irishman. The film starts and just goes in a somewhat monotone fashion until it’s done. No intermission is criminal.

2- Yes, monotone. But there’s a lot going on. And it’s not exactly draggy. As long and big as it is, The Irishman is not hard to follow and hold one’s interest, more or less, for the whole length. It’s not boring.

3- I felt that all the star power was not used that well. Pacino, yes, because he plays Jimmy Hoffa, a larger-than-life character. The De Niro and Pesci characters I thought should have been played by younger actors. I didn’t entirely buy their act, though I give some credit for the depiction of aging.

4- One big problem is that it’s hard to become emotionally invested in the Irishman/De Niro’s character.

Think about The Departed. You’re pulling for the good guy, the DiCaprio “good cop.” You’re not pulling for anyone in The Irishman. They’re all pretty much a bunch of weasels, and not even the fun quirky type of weasels you can pull for in any way. So that even more is why it’s a big so-what. Somehow in Raging Bull, even though Jake La Motta was a jerk, you were made to care about him a little. You’re definitely pulling for our hero/anti-hero in Breaking Bad. In The Irishman, I found myself glazed over because I just didn’t care, other than as a point of interest.

It’s a personal odyssey, but it’s not thrilling enough to be a personal thriller. Not round, but flat.

5- The worst sin: I don’t think anyone’s going to come back in 5 or 10 years and say oh what a great movie that was. There’s nothing particularly memorable or novel about it. There’s no a-ha! moment. There’s no classic quotable line or citable scene. It was all rather hum-drum. Well-executed, but humdrum.

6- The Irishman never plunges into a juicy, thrilling story like The Departed. That kind of lock-in setup never happens. The film just plugs along. However, the meditative moments that draw the film to a close combine with the earlier highlights and better sequences to raise the whole into positive territory, if barely.

7- Captions are placed over characters who will meet a usually violent end, even though those characters have little or nothing to do with the story. They’re introduced on screen, with a note on their demise, and proceed to have no import.

8- The film’s only title presented on-screen (prior to end credits) is “I Heard You Paint Houses.” This is code for whacking those who need to be whacked. Again, if Scorsese had any sense of grandness we’d see intro titles. And why “I Heard You Paint Houses”?  Like that’s a big-time title. Of course there’s no intermission. We couldn’t even get titles.

9- On Netflix. Back to point 1. There are big plot points, but the film just isn’t built in a way that lends itself to an intermission. Or maybe it does, if the desire were there. One may wonder if the film was built this way to make the theater-going experience as uncomfortable as possible. So that Netflix could make a point: how much better would this be to watch at home? Locally, in all of San Diego county, the only place showing the film was the Landmark Hillcrest, the local art house. Like a Scorsese film starring De Niro and Pacino is some kind of indie.

The Landmark features non-reclining seats that if anything are less comfortable than average. So I said if you can’t beat em, join em. I tried to stay with the film best I could, taking no break in the last 2 hours of the film. And, I admit it worked well to watch at home. Unlike Roma, there’s not a ton of long shots with detail that is missed on your home screen.

It would seem that this type of release will become more and more the norm. It’s a little sad. I give A24 grief now and then, but they, along with Fox Searchlight, Blumhouse and a couple other studios, are keeping the theater alive with movies other than Marvel and animated releases.

10- Marvel movies aren’t cinema. In significant vectors, neither is The Irishman. In just as many other vectors it is. There’s a lot of good production value here — would we expect anything less? I hardly loved it, but at least we’re not seeing the downward spiral à la Oliver Stone.

11- A lot of caveats on this, but on balance: 6/10.

Comparison Notes: The Departed, Mystic River, Donnie Brasco, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, JFK, The Drop

Holding a Black Mass for Itself

Compared to the enthralling true-life organized crime story it tells, Black Mass is a letdown.  That true crime story is muddled down by filmmakers who are in over their head.  Instead of a magnificent arc, we are given incongruous snapshots.  The performances are good, but that’s a given.  We may think of a mass being held for the vastly under-realized potential.

Black Mass - text blockSo no, Black Mass will not supplant Goodfellas, The Departed, or Mystic River, or even a small and much more powerful violent crime film like The Drop.  Johnny Depp does a good job here, but for an infinitely better Depp mob movie, check out Donnie Brasco.

Despite its deep shortcomings, those snapshots work well enough to let some of this poignant tale through, so a mild thumbs-up.  6/10

Cinematic Greats: Donnie Brasco

Donnie Brasco - still

I’m a spoke on a wheel.  And so was he.  And so are you.

What a fantastic movie this is; a blessing.  Just about perfect.

* * *

Prior to The Gift, a trailer was shown for the upcoming Johnny Depp portrayal of Whitey Bulger, Black Mass.  I was instantly reminded of Depp’s other mob film, Donnie Brasco (lest anyone has remembered, let’s all forget about Public Enemies).

Which gets one thinking about the career of Johnny Depp, one of the biggest talents in Hollywood.  He was on the Letterman show talking about his first stint as Captain Jack Sparrow in the mega-blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean series; speaking of the Disney execs:

They didn’t know what I was doing, exactly.  They were concerned that I was, uh, I think in their words ‘ruining the movie.’  Something subtle like that.

A wonderful little interview.  You’ll have to excuse the quality; if you can find better let me know.

Being Johnny Depp, we may take it that he assured the producers to the effect, “I’m Johnny Depp.  I know what I’m doing.”  Boy did he.  From Edward Scissorhands on, there has never been any doubt about Depp’s “out there” roles — he always nails them.  He dons the full costume and makeup better than just about anyone.  He’s great at that, often brilliant.  Though occasionally a movie will fall short, as The Lone Ranger or Sweeney Todd, his performance is not to blame for those failures.  He always adds a quirky element to his portrayals that — as the Pirates anecdote proves — is entirely his invention.

But there’s this whole other side of Johnny Depp that is seen much less frequently — the “serious actor” who plays “straight” roles — roles without the fancy costume, without the panoply.  Donnie Brasco is the best example of this, and makes me wish he would do more “straight” roles.

Donnie Brasco excels because of Depp, and a great true story, and — most of all — because Al Pacino puts in probably the best performance of his career.

A terrific movie, maybe not as “essential” as Goodfellas, but every bit as good.  My highest recommendation.

Availability: iTunes

Cinematic Greats: Bound

Bound - poster

Terrifically fun, highly stylized modern film noir with lots of dark humor — in 2008, I wrote:

Bound, 1996, with Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon, is a delightful mob movie with a twist – the mobster, played uniquely with humor by Joe Pantoliano, becomes the target of a plot against him by his wife (Tilly) and Gershon.  I saw this in the theater when it came out.  It is the only movie I can think of where after about 10 minutes into the film, I was literally on the edge of my seat for the duration of the picture.

Bound - text blockRoger Ebert awarded his highest rating:

“Bound” is one of those movies that works you up, wrings you out and leaves you gasping. It’s pure cinema, spread over several genres. It’s a caper movie, a gangster movie, a sex movie and a slapstick comedy. It’s not often you think of “The Last Seduction” and the Marx Brothers during the same film, but I did during this one–and I also thought about “Blood Simple” and Woody Allen. It’s amazing to discover all this virtuosity and confidence in two first-time filmmakers, Larry and Andy Wachowski, self-described college dropouts, still in their 20s, from Chicago.

So in other words, for a dose of the Wachowskis, you’re better off watching Bound — even a second or third time — than opting for their most recent offering, Jupiter Ascending.  It’s funny that Bound ended up a somewhat forgotten film, while their Matrix enterprise became completely ubiquitous, a staple of cinema.

BONUS!  Bound’s available on Netflix.

Review: Killing Them Softly

Killing Them Softly (2012, Brad Pitt, Ray Liotta, and Richard Jenkins) shuffles its opening titles into an Obama speech.  The word “Killing” flashes on screen, briefly cutting off and into candidate Obama’s appeal for the betterment of self and society.  The effect is a bit jarring, and I liked it.  It tells you that this movie has an idea.  That is, it let’s you know that this won’t be an ‘un-movie.’

From there, a mostly gripping crime drama ensues, centered on the heist of a card game among members of the local mob.  One of the nice things about this movie is that the mob is never explicitly defined; it’s more of a casualJungleland-cover-NYTimes mob.  That fits the town’s setting — an anonymous, bereft, bankrupt community hit by the recent American economic crisis.  It turns out the town is New Orleans, but that wasn’t obvious to me at all watching the movie — there are no scenes in the French Quarter or flooded-out wildlands of the Lower Ninth Ward (see this great New York Times article on that).  Nor did I catch any signage or other location indicators, and none of the characters had a dialect which would indicate New Orleans.  No jazz either.  Rather, the setting seemed like any former industrial midwest city — I thought it could be Detroit.  The director does a nice job using drifting debris to give a sense of the wasteland environs.

At times the movie got a little too self-indulged and cutesy for my tastes.  The interspersing of speeches by both President Bush and then-senator Obama throughout the movie wore out its welcome.   The director has stated that he wanted to create an analogy between the American financial crisis and the crisis encountered by the film’s characters — gambling on a corporate, global scale embodied in the microcosm of these small-time hoods and their gambles.  The comparison did not sit entirely well with me; it introduced a tinge of cynical political commentary that I found distracting.

Killing_Them_Softly_posterAlso distracting was James Gandolfini’s drunken-hitman character.  He fit in with the other characters well enough, but the limited storyline involving him felt like filler material to me.  That strikes at another weakness of this movie — it gets a little laggy in the second half.

Nonetheless, Killing Them Softly is a good movie.  The subject matter has been trod many times —  Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels [prior post] and Kubrick’s Killing come to mind as better alternatives, but this movie has its place.  It has a wry humor reminiscent of Fargo, and strong dialog and scene development you could call ‘Tarantino-esque’.  There were good, believable performances by all, and one of principles, actor Scoot McNairy as Frankie, delivered a great, empathic performance — the heart and soul of this picture.  7/10, which would place it just behind Flight on my Best of 2012 list.