The Irishman Movie Review

There are the types of characters we have met before in Martin Scorsese’s gangster genre works, but never quite like this. There are characters we never really meet here, but we’re introduced to the way they die. There are characters that never speak, but we’re aware of their thought process. And it’s that time consuming process that the filmmaker goes through here that makes The Irishman feel both invigorating and melancholy.

The thought of reuniting this director, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and anything involving the Mob is enough to get many running to the theater or, in this case for most, Netflix. Add Al Pacino to the mix (working with Scorsese somehow for the first time) and there’s more incentive. Yet this is far from a rehash of previous material. It’s an often stunning work that stands on its own merits. There is no coasting happening with De Niro or Pacino and that’s something they can rightfully be accused of in the past quarter century or so. The pair (who shared just a couple of scenes in Michael Mann’s masterful Heat and greater screen time in the unfortunate Righteous Kill) contribute some of their finest work in years. For Pesci, he hasn’t worked in years and his return finds him playing a Mafia boss but in a way you won’t expect.

The unexpected is key here and welcome. Just as GoodFellas gave audiences a final act kinetically viewed from Ray Liotta’s coked out perspective, the last segment of The Irishman is made from a considerably lower dosage. As De Niro’s character enters his final act, we witness him finally pause to consider his existence. And it’s not of a glorified nature.

In this tale based on certain truths and possible myths, De Niro is Frank Sheeran. He’s a World War II vet and truck driver residing in Philadelphia. Frank saw plenty of combat overseas and he’s willing to have a career of killing back stateside. His employer becomes Russell Bufalino (Pesci), the area crime boss and confidante of labor leader Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). Frank soon becomes Hoffa’s body man, enforcer, and trusted friend. Whether on assignment from Bufalino or Jimmy, Frank’s speciality is to “paint houses” (code for taking out whomever he’s ordered to). He’s skilled at it and the screenplay from Steven Zaillian gets into the occasional minutia and necessary strategy of carrying out such tasks.

Hoffa’s bigger than life personality (something Pacino is perfect to portray) often conflicts with the more buttoned down approach of Bufalino (something Pesci is more surprisingly adept at). This frequently leaves Frank in the position of mediator of murder or no murder. There’s plenty of it here, but The Irishman is noticeably less bloody than GoodFellas or Casino. 

De Niro has by far the most screen time and his work is perhaps the most impressive in a picture loaded with two other heavyweights in excellent form. It’s ultimately his film to carry and he does so with an ability he hasn’t shown in a long while. There’s plenty of other familiar faces from Harvey Keitel as another boss to Ray Romano as the group’s very busy attorney. Frank’s family is given the short shrift, but that’s no accident as he doesn’t have much time for them. His relationship with one daughter played by Anna Paquin is a constant thread and it’s a quiet and powerful one.

The Irishman transpires over several decades and Scorsese made the choice not to use younger actors to play the main roles in their 30s and beyond. This is done through de-aging visual effects that, while certainly not perfect, are the best I’ve seen yet. Most importantly, I didn’t find it as a distraction after a couple of minutes.

Just as Hoffa is obsessed with punctuality, The Irishman is about time. In this world of criminals and betrayal and violence, time moves fast. The film itself doesn’t at three and a half hours. That didn’t feel overly padded to me. This is good company. However, as this draws to a close, time slows down for some characters as well. And as Scorsese and three legendary actors expertly show for 209 minutes, some doors for reflection are slammed shut with a bang. Others are left slightly open for it.

**** (out of four)

Knives Out Movie Review

Whodunits aren’t an omnipresent genre on the silver screen these days and rare recent ones like Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express have had a bit of an unnecessary regurgitated vibe to it. Not so with Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, which displays  the writer/director’s enthusiasm for playing in this murderous sandbox to satisfactory effect. Like the 1974 version of Orient Express, we have a 007 involved. 45 years ago, it was Sean Connery and now it’s Daniel Craig. There’s a Marvel superhero (Chris Evans) playing decidedly against type. A captain of the American crime novel industry meets his demise in a stately manner that’s a triumph of production design. Craig and Evans are having a good time here, as is the rest of the cast. Some get better opportunities to shine than others. One of the standouts even has her crowd pleasing moments that involves regurgitation.

The Thrombey family is celebrating the 85th birthday of their patriarch Harlan (Christopher Plummer), a wealthy novelist who won’t allow his capers to be adapted into films or TV specials. This is a source of frustration for son Walt (Michael Shannon), who cares for his publishing empire. The family drama doesn’t stop there. Harlan is prepared to expose family secrets or cut off the gravy train for eldest daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her philandering husband (Don Johnson) and daughter-in-law and would-be life coaching guru Joni (Toni Collette). Evans is the black sheep grandson in a clan where that’s saying something. Everyone has a reason to get rid of Harlan. His most healthy relationship is with a non-family member – caretaker Marta (Ana de Armas). She’s from another country and it could be Brazil or Ecuador and one ending with “guay”. Don’t ask the Thrombeys as they express an admiration for her, but hilariously have no clue where she came from. This is all part of Johnson’s integration of the immigration debate into a screenplay that manages to occasionally weave current events into the foul play happenings.

That foul play means Harlan’s celebration is short-lived. Enter private detective Benoit Blanc as played by Craig and his work is a far cry from James Bond. Adopting a thick Southern drawl and a patient attitude to finding the killer, Blanc nevertheless seems a step ahead of the other policemen investigating. They want to believe Harlan might have committed suicide as the evidence suggests. Yet no whodunit script could make it that simple, could it?

Knives Out clues the audience in on some revelations before they enter Blanc’s consciousness from time to time. Johnson probably could have held some back for stronger pacing results. And some of the performers never quite have the running time to develop their roles. These turn out to be minor criticisms in the grand scheme. De Armas and Evans form the yin and yang of the case and are afforded the most clock time in the game along with Craig. The frequent twists and turns experienced are a hoot as we anticipate what Johnson will throw up on the screen next.

*** (out of four)

Luce Movie Review

The name Luce (sounds like loose) was given to its title character after being adopted from the war-torn nation of Eritrea at the age of ten. As he tells it, his adoptive mother Amy (Naomi Watts) couldn’t pronounce his birth name – unable to master the various syllables involved. Like Amy, we never do learn it. So Luce it is, which means light. In the context of the film Luce, this strikes me as a not insignificant detail. From the moment he comes to the United States, he’s accustomed to others defining him and believing what they see. In their eyes, there is no darkness. Only light.

Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a high school senior, raised by upper class Amy and Peter (Tim Roth). He is looked at as the model student. An all-star athlete and debate club standout, Luce can apparently do no wrong. When history teacher Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer) begins poking holes at his impenetrable facade, his status is challenged. As is her reputation.

What unfolds is a tale of race relations and, more significantly, racial expectations. No one in Luce is all that innocent. The picture often plays like a thriller where you expect a core player to snap. You’re just not sure who it will be. I’ll add that the tightly wound score from Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury is a contributor to the feeling.

Harrison Jr. has a complicated character to portray and he succeeds in keeping the audience off-kilter. He’s charming, but there’s no doubt that another layer is bubbling not far under the surface. Spencer may have the trickiest role as Harriet navigates the repercussions of her discoveries about Luce. As always, she’s up to the challenge.

Julius Onah directed and co-wrote with JC Lee and Luce is an exercise clearly meant to spark discussion. The screenplay often allows the viewer to draw their own conclusions about who to root for and against or perhaps feel ambivalent about. There’s also the odd sensation of some themes being redundant. If you’re searching for a pat ending to fill in every blank, ambivalence may be your overarching reaction. The overall thesis to this story, like Luce’s original name, is unpronounced or at least left for speculation. I found Luce, for the most part, successful in creating a sense of tension before the conversations start after fade out.

*** (out of four)

It Chapter Two Movie Review

It bloats. That would be Chapter Two of the saga that was adapted from Stephen King’s novel to monstrous box office results in 2017. A rumination on childhood friendship and fears that happened to feature a demented clown (with a humdinger of a performance by Bill Skarsgard and his creepy eyes as Pennywise), it was easy to see why It cashed in. Set in the 1980s (when the book was released) as opposed to the 1950s, the pic had a retro vibe fitting the Stranger Things and Steven Spielberg mold. Featuring fine performances by its band of teens called The Losers, the scariest parts of It often involved what adults were capable of doing to the group as opposed to Pennywise in clown or other forms.

In Chapter Two, it’s The Losers who are the adults. They come together 27 years after the events of chapter one in the town of Derry, Maine. This was choreographed at the conclusion of It two years back, but the grownup Losers only have scant memories of warding off Pennywise in 1989. We as the audience remember it well, but it takes around an hour of the nearly three hour running time for nearly all of them to recall. And that’s a slog.

On the positive side, the casting here is impressive. James McAvoy is de facto leader Bill, now a successful horror author who can’t ever write a satisfactory ending to his works (something King himself is often accused of). In my It review, I speculated that Amy Adams could inhabit the part of Beverly, the lone female of the club who continues to suffer from physical abuse started by her demented father. Jessica Chastain got the role and she’s another obvious choice. The most memorable performances here, however, come from Bill Hader as Richie, now a standup comic and James Ransone as hypochondriac Eddie. They’re responsible for some much needed comic relief and occasional moments that are genuinely funny. And while Jay Ryan might not exactly physically resemble the younger overweight New Kids on the Block loving Ben (who still has a crush on Beverly), the casting club found a performer whose eyes match his youthful counterpart Jeremy Ray Taylor.

Of course, there’s also Skarsgard having a ball as Pennywise. It comes in many forms and in many situations. It comes at night. It comes during daytime. It comes as a creepy old lady who lives in Beverly’s old apartment. It comes as a giant spider. It comes as famous lumberjacks. It comes in ways that display decent CG and dodgy CG. It’s a mixed bag of appearances.

Chapter Two is overstuffed and overlong. It’s as if director Andy Muschietti and screenwriter Gary Dauberman (the team behind the first chapter) wanted to be as faithful as possible to King’s book and leave as little out as possible. A tightening of the screws might have been a wiser course of action. King himself (who cleverly cameos) has stated in interviews that the why of why monsters do what they do is fairly incidental. The time spent linking Pennywise to Native American rituals and the creature’s background feels just that. That Stephen King might be onto something.

The long continuation of this story does certainly feature a couple of spine tingling sequences, fine acting, and amusing bits. Unfortunately it does not represent a hefty portion of its 169 minutes and that’s why this chapter just can’t match the more tightly contained first one.

**1/2 (out of four)

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark Movie Review

Based upon Alvin Schwartz’s three horror short tale collections from the 1980s and early 1990s (with some celebrated illustrations by Stephen Gammell), Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark has caught the attention of Guillermo del Toro. He has, of course, turned his monster material into Oscar winning work. Mr. del Toro didn’t direct this and he shares a producer and story credit. However, this reminds one of Steven Spielberg’s output at the time when Schwartz’s works were originally being released. Films like Poltergeist, Gremlins, and The Goonies came from other filmmakers, but they might as well have been made by Spielberg because his fingerprints are all over them. Andre Øvredal directed this and he’s proved his genre chops previously with effective material like The Autopsy of Jane Doe. Yet you get the feeling this is del Toro’s vision through and through.

Set in 1968 when political upheaval and the Vietnam War were true scary stories of their own, this brings us to a small Pennsylvania town in a year where Night of the Living Dead is just out. Teenage Stella (Zoe Colletti) is obsessed with the living dead as a horror enthusiast and aspiring writer. Her seemingly only friends are Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur) and the trio gets their kicks by playing Halloween themed pranks on the school bullies. They are soon joined in this quest by drifter Ramon (Michael Garza), who appears to be living out of his car. Their exploits lead them to an alleged haunted house once lived in by the wealthy and mysterious Bellows family. Their daughter Sarah was a writer like Stella. The difference is that Sarah’s writing hasn’t stopped after death and her words describe the PG-13 horror antics that follow.

This plot line allows for a small number of Schwartz’s old tales to come to life. And the CG creature effects due to that are as solid as we’d expect from anything with del Toro’s name attached. A couple of sequences radiate with a ghoulish vibe that impresses. Those moments are scary, but there’s not a lot of them. The screenwriters occasionally bring the turbulent late 1960s happenings to the mix, but that feels a bit clumsy and tacked on as they don’t really commit to it.

Instead we have a novel concept from source material of anthological form. Perhaps Sarah and Schwartz’s short stories could have worked a little better had this been adapted into a series on Netflix or another streaming service. After all, it’s probably Stranger Things and its retro goldmine of success that sped up the green light here. There’s no doubt that the those involved (particularly one) have deep affection for what they’re adapting. Despite its moments, it’s the format that’s limiting.

**1/2 (out of four)

Good Boys Movie Review

Yes, there’s an apt comparison to be made between Good Boys and 2007’s Superbad. This is kind of the middle school version of that movie from over a decade ago. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg wrote the latter and they serve as producers here. Both involve young boys with their dirty minds trying to make it to a party that they view as potentially life changing (all events are greatly elevated in status at these ages).

What both get right is portraying the naïveté of their central characters. They may talk a good game in their minds, but there’s a whole lot about sex and drugs that they simply don’t understand yet. There’s inherent humor in that. Plenty of raunchy youth comedies are simply in it for the gross out humor. Another layer exists here and it’s one of sweetness to occasionally balance out the R rated aspects.

Max (Jacob Tremblay), Lucas (Keith L. Williams), and Thor (Brady Noon) have just entered the wild world of middle school. Their curiosity level when it comes to girls, beer, and after school get togethers is in peak form. They christen themselves The Beanbag Boys since a good chunk of their lives are spent playing games and conversing while sitting on them. Max has a crush on a fellow student and might have an opportunity to make his move at a party that the cool kids invite him to. Thor is more interested in excelling at the school musical (an ill conceived pint size rendering of Rock of Ages), but struggles with that since the cool kids don’t think that’s cool. Lucas has a happy life that’s disrupted by parental divorce. He’s unlikely to ever be the cool kid and doesn’t quite know that yet.

The boys friendship is tested over a long day where they skip school, steal Max’s dad’s fancy drone, and turn into amateur ecstasy dealers so they don’t get in deeper trouble (it all makes sense in context). The laugh ratio here is pretty high as the trio must learn about kissing (the porn sites they go don’t help much) and dealing with college kids to score drugs.

Tremblay is the famous kid of the bunch as he’s known for his impressive serious work in Room and Wonder. He gets to drop some F bombs for the first time and he looks precocious doing it. I would say it’s Williams, however, that shines the brightest. The couple scenes with his splitting parents are comedic highlights. They display what makes Good Boys work best. It’s funny, but with an undertone of these kids learning the real world for the first time. Like Superbad, the central figures come to discover life will exist beyond their childhood friendships. It takes plenty of crass jokes to get them there, but those gags work more often than they don’t.

*** (out of four)

Crawl Movie Review

I fear that Haley (Kaya Scodelario) will have trouble running into her school’s mascot after the events that transpire in Crawl. She’s a college student attending the University of Florida and she gets the literal treatment to gator chomps. When a Category 5 Hurricane is poised to make landfall, Haley goes searching for searching for her dad Dave (Barry Pepper). Flashbacks show him pushing juvenile Haley hard in the sport of swimming. Their relationship is strained, though that nautical training sure comes in handy here.

When she finds him and their dog Sugar, he’s trapped in the old family home and there’s not one, but two alligators skulking around while the rain pounds away. The pair must use their survival skills to battle all the elements and try to turn their tormentors into boots or luggage (as the former California Governor said in the Arnold not so classic Eraser).

Crawl is short (87 minutes), unambitious, and straightforward. Those adjectives will apply to this review. It’s certainly watchable and clips right along. The gators look pretty menacing and the underwater camerawork is stellar. Director Alexandre Aja has covered this stuff before in Piranha 3D. This is primarily a two person show with Scodelario and Pepper, though you may find yourself rooting hardest for Sugar to pull through. His bark occasionally assists in avoiding the creatures bites.

Even with the brisk running time, the occasional callbacks to the father/daughter dynamic seems tacked on. After all, the exposition of Dave using coaching terms to get Haley to do the breaststroke isn’t exactly Quint recounting the events of the USS Indianapolis. And this Jaws knockoff is a standard and sometimes effective diversion.

**1/2 (out of four)