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)

Widows Movie Review

Like Michael Mann’s Heat over two decades ago, Steve McQueen’s Widows is a heist movie more concerned with the personalities of the people planning them. The similarities don’t stop there. It’s got a sprawling cast with many familiar faces and an overall somber tone. This is a genre marked mostly by its entertainment value. Heists are fun onscreen with the numeric Ocean’s being the highest profile recent examples.

Unlike Heat, its central planner doesn’t pull these crimes because he’s great at it and doesn’t have a personal life. Here it’s the personal lives that lead to the planning in the first place. And in this one, it’s “she’s”. Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis) works for the Chicago Teachers Union and is married to career thief Harry (Liam Neeson). What I’m about to write isn’t exactly a spoiler considering the title. Harry and his crew have a job go awry and they’re all killed. Besides Veronica, the widowed women include business owner Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), abused spouse Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), and new mom Amanda (Carrie Coon).

Their mourning period is disrupted by their husband’s past illegal dealings. Windy City crime lord Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) was ripped off by them and he’s ready to collect. He’s running for an alderman spot against corrupt politico Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell). Mulligan fancies himself a man of the people and lives close to the dilapidated neighborhood he wishes to represent. He might as well live on another planet. Manning wants to enter government life to get away from a life of crime, but seems to understand that they go hand in hand in this transactional and blood soaked Chicago.

Veronica, Linda, and Alice are put in a desperate spot. A clue left behind by Harry leads them to plan a robbery of Mulligan’s dirty money while trying to keep his political opponent off their backs (Amanda chooses to not to participate). Mulligan and Manning have enforcers on their team. The former’s is his controlling and ruthless father (Robert Duvall). The latter’s is his henchman (Daniel Kaluuya), who’s sadistic and seems to genuinely enjoy his works of depravity.

There are many subplots in Widows and McQueen manages to pull it off in mostly satisfying fashion. Some work better than others. The relationship of Veronica and Harry is a complicated one that’s given emotional heft by a shared loss. The same can be said for Alice’s character. She’s been a victim her whole life it seems. There’s an empowerment element with her that makes her perhaps the easiest character to root for. Rodriguez’s story has less meat on the bones. They pick up another conspirator in Belle (a memorable Cynthia Erivo), a driven woman who serves as the driver.

You’ll not be surprised to find the performances are first-rate, particularly Davis, Debicki, and Kaluuya (there’s not a mediocre one in the bunch). The score, editing, and cinematography are also noteworthy. McQueen wrote the script along with Gillian Flynn, known for her twisty works like Gone Girl. She’s created compelling female characters there and elsewhere and she does so here. If there’s an issue, it’s that her proclivity for twists reaches a tad too far with one (which I won’t spoil). I found it unnecessary and you’ll likely recognize what I’m referring to upon viewing.

And Widows is worth viewing as it gives us some characters you want to follow. There’s nothing remarkable about the heist they’re trying to pull. The acting and technical work often does fit that description.

*** (out of four)

Atomic Blonde Movie Review

Atomic Blonde is set in 1989 and that feels appropriate because it’s a gleefully rated R entry in an action genre that cranked out a lot more of those 30 years ago. It’s unapologetically violent, sexy, and stylish with a pulsating late 80s soundtrack booming all throughout (almost all throughout). It’s additionally uneven at times and confusing, but I didn’t care much because the good outweighs the bad and the bad people look good doing their thing.

David Leitch co-directed John Wick and we see those kind of kinetic fight scenes represented here as well. Charlize Theron is Lorraine, an MI6 agent dispatched to Berlin just days before the collapse of the Wall. While the Cold War is drawing to a close, she’s given the mission of retrieving a McGuffin (a wristwatch in this case) that hides the identities of secret agents.  She’s also teamed up with Percival (James McAvoy), an outlandish fellow agent who may or may not be on her side. Lorraine also gets friendly (very friendly) with Sofia Boutella’s French agent and the scenes between them aren’t something normally found in summer shoot-em-up material.

The story is told in flashback (not exactly an original touch) as Lorraine recounts her sordid Berlin experience to a CIA man (John Goodman) and other government big wigs. The villains change seemingly minute to minute. It’s a screenplay that never tires of double, triple, and quadruple crosses. Trying to piece it altogether at its conclusion may not be worth your time.

That said, certain sequences and the general cool vibe make it worth your while. It also doesn’t hurt to hear George Michael, A Flock of Seagulls and others singing along during the battle ballets. They’re a trip, but the most effective fight scene is a gloriously choreographed number with no music. It might be the finest action set piece using that distinction since Heat.

Theron has proven herself in several genres, but she sure seems comfortable in this one. McAvoy is having a blast as well. Atomic Blonde is shameless in a way that R rated action pics should be when they’re done well enough. And that alone sets it apart in the summer season.

*** (out of four)

Top 25 Best Movies (1990-2015): Nos. 15-11

Onto part three of my personal top 25 motion pictures of the past 25 years and we’re at numbers 15-11. Here they are:

15. Fargo (1996)

The Coen Brothers have been responsible for so many fabulous movies over the last 30 plus years. This violent charcoal black comedy that earned highly deserved Oscars for Frances McDormand and its screenplay is the best one of the bunch.

14. The Fugitive (1993)

There’s been a whole lot of action thrillers based on old TV series, but nothing like this one. Andrew Davis’s thrilling adaptation of the 1960s show with Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones is a perfect example of this genre at its absolute peak.

13. Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

David O. Russell has arguably been putting out the finest films of this ongoing decade and Playbook is the highlight with grade A performances from Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and Robert De Niro in a career resurgent part. The last scene of the movie is perfect.

12. Nixon (1995)

Whether or not it’s historically accurate is a legit argument. What’s not is that Oliver Stone’s take on the Nixon life and presidency is a brilliantly made story of the corruption of power. It tackles the subject on a level close to that of Citizen Kane and Anthony Hopkins is marvelous as the 37th POTUS.

11. Heat (1995)

Michael Mann teaming with Robert De Niro and Al Pacino for a sprawling L.A. based crime thriller. It’s even better than it sounds and the coffee shop scene that pits its generation’s two signature actors together for the first time is movie lover heaven.

And there you have it… we’ll enter the Top Ten tomorrow folks!

Movie Perfection: A Coffee Break in Heat

The coffee shop scene in Michael Mann’s brilliant 1995 crime thriller Heat will forever be remembered in film history as the first time Robert De Niro and Al Pacino shared screen time together. However, the more times you watch the picture and watch that scene, you realize it’s important for other reasons.

I described Heat as a crime thriller. More than that, it’s a movie about work and family. Specifically, it’s about people who are excellent at their chosen fields of profession and how it hinders their ability at a stable family life. You see it in Pacino’s character, Vincent Hanna, who is terrific at catching criminals and bad at holding a marriage together. You see it in De Niro’s character, Neil McCauley, who is a master thief who must sacrifice any meaningful relationships to do his job. You see it with McCauley’s crew, most notably Val Kilmer’s Chris Shiherlis who gets away at the end, but must leave his wife and young child forever in order to escape.

This all comes to a head in that coffee shop scene where Vincent and Neil casually discuss the situation they find themselves in. Vincent knows that Neil is looking to pull off one last huge score and he’s determined to not let it happen. Neil feels the same way – nothing will get in the way of him doing his job. The pair make it clear that they enjoy their careers – one tasked to stop criminals and the other being the criminal – and that they, frankly, really aren’t good at anything else. Neil and Vincent know their strengths. They’re going to keep doing what they do and lets the chips fall where they may. They both know and have known for some time that everything else besides their work must fall to the wayside, including their families and significant others.

Heat is a film about cops and robbers, but one like no other that delves deep into their psyches. We see example after example after how their thought process hurts their personal lives. At the end of the day, though, it’s something they’ve learned to accept. And the coffee shop scene illustrates that point with great dialogue that develops the richly written characters of Pacino and De Niro further.

Putting these two actors together, two of the best in American history, is reason enough for it to make movie history. It’s the amazing screenplay and willingness of director Mann to take Heat to a higher level of art than practically any “crime thriller”, though, that makes the scene Movie Perfection. And, of course, Pacino and De Niro are absolutely incredible in it.