The Irishman (2019): Painting Houses Between a Rock and a Hard Place

The_Irishman_poster.jpgNOTE: I’m never too concerned about spoilers but just be warned I’m talking about The Irishman, which will come out in November. If you want to be surprised maybe wait to read this…

The opening moments caused an almost immediate smile of recognition to come over my face. There it is. An intricate tracking shot taking us down the hallway to the tune of “In The Still of The Night.” We know this world well.

Martin Scorsese does too. Because it’s an instant tie to Goodfellas. In some sense, we are being brought back into that world. Except you might say that The Irishman picked up where the other film left off, filling up its own space, coming to terms with different themes. This is no repeat.

A day ago if badgered about the film I would have said it’s about a hitman named Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) who had ties with the Buffalino crime family (Joe Pesci) and worked alongside Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). The famed union teamster disappeared without a trace, only to become one of the most mythical unsolved cases of all time.

And yes, I had to take a few moments to get used to a de-aged Robert De Niro, although I think it might have been the blue “Irish” eyes, so I quickly accepted it and fell into the story. On a surface level, these are the initially apparent attributes. However, it’s a joy to acknowledge it’s so much more. Because all the greatest films offer something very unique unto themselves — and to their creators — in this case the world of organized crime.

We’re so used to having Scorsese and De Niro together; it’s staggering to believe their last collaboration was Casino (1995). Meanwhile, Joe Pesci came out of his near-decade of retirement to join with De Niro again and continue their own substantial screen partnership together. Some might be equally surprised to stretch their memories and realize Pacino and Scorsese have never worked together. Both have such deep ties to the American New Wave and the crime genre. The pedigree is well-deserved on all accounts.

But there’s something ranging even deeper and more elemental, resonating with us as an audience. This is not Sunday school truth but a type of hazy mythology with flawed titans going at it in a manner that feels almost bizarre. There are no pretenses here. If you are familiar with Scorsese’s work from Mean Streets to Goodfellas, this is an equally violent and profane work. And yet how is it we begin to care about characters so much that their relationships begin to carry weight? Especially over 3 and a half hours.

It is a monumental epic and that opening tracking shot I mentioned leads us to a white-haired, wheelchair-bound man who has seen so much over the course of his lifetime. Voiceover has a hallowed place in the picture akin to Goodfellas, but again, the man at the center of it all has such a different place in the story.

What’s more, The Irishman really is a full-bodied meditation on this lifestyle of organized crime. Yes, it’s placed in a historical context, but Sheeran is a man we can look at and analyze. He is a sort of case study to try and untangle the complexities of such an environment.

Steven Zaillian’s script lithely jumps all over a lifetime woven through the fabric of popular history, aided further by the music selections of Robbie Robertson (of The Band acclaim) and real-life touchstones ranging from the Bay of Pigs, the Kennedy Assassination, Nixon, and Watergate.

Thelma Schoonmaker makes the action accessible and smooth with ample artistic flourishes to grapple with the societal tensions and cold, harsh realities. Still, the majority of the picture is all about relationships. Everything else converges on them.

Sheeran didn’t know it then, but the day he met Russell Bulfino (Pesci) on his meat trucking route, would be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Because he’s a man with clout and connections. Everyone comes to him, he expects other people to pay deference to him, and he looks kindly on those who carry out his favors.

In his company, Sheeran has a formidable ally, and he starts rising up the ranks even running in the same circles of the acclaimed Jimmy Hoffa. Being “brothers” as it were, it’s as if Sheeran and Hoffa understand one another intuitively and in a cutthroat world, they have a deep-seated, inalienable trust in one another.  Who is the man Hoffa comes to have in his room to be his friend, confidant, and bodyguard if not Frank? You can’t help but get close to someone in that context.

Al Pacino just about steals the show blowing through the film with a phenomenally rich characterization of the famed teamster, because he willfully gives a tableau of charm, charisma, warmth, humor, mingled with a ruthless streak and utter obstinacy. His loyalists are many as are his enemies. It’s facile to be a mover and a shaker when you’re an immovable force of nature.

Even as Sheeran is busy, mainly on the road, his first wife and his kids (and then his second wife) are always present and yet somehow they never get much of a mention, rarely a line of dialogue, always in the periphery. This in itself is a statement about his family life.

One recalls The Godfather mentality. Where family is important but so is the family business and never the twain shall meet. Womenfolk and children are protected, shielded even, and the dichotomy is so severe it’s alarming.

In that film, the cafe moment is where Michael (a younger Pacino) makes a life-altering decision. For Frank, that mentality somehow comes easily for him. Michael was the war hero and thus stayed out of the family business for a time. Frank’s involvement in “painting houses,” as the euphemism goes, is just an obvious extension of the killing he undertook in Europe.

It’s curious how everyone mentions his military experience, the fact that he knows what it’s like, and how that somehow makes what he’s called to do second-nature. Again, it’s business. It’s following orders. If you do a good job, if you do the “right thing,” you get rewarded.

There are some many blow-ups and hits and what-have-yous, it wears on you to the point of desensitization, especially when you’re forced to laugh it off uneasily. This is very dangerous but again, it’s anti-Godfather, which was a film where these were the moments of true climax and meaning and import for the psychology of the characters. Where Michael evolves and takes over the territory. Where his older brother Sonny is killed and his other brother Fredo gets killed. There’s meaning in every one of them.

In the Irishman, it could care less. Everything of true importance seems to happen around conversations, in dialogue, between people. To a degree that is. Because dynamics are set up in such a way and the culture and the unyielding ways of men make it inevitable, opposing forces will rub up against one another.

The complicated realms of masculinity, pride, and respect make minor tiffs and bruised egos the basis of future gang wars and vendettas. Phone calls are testy and people are pulled aside to get straightened out before more serious action is taken. It’s a social hierarchy where go-betweens come to mediate everything.

As time goes on, we come to realize Sheeran is the wedge bewteen two of these unyielding forces, and he’s caught between a rock and a hard place. Between his “Rabbi” Russell, as Hoffa calls him, and the man he’s been through the trenches with — the man he asks to present his lifetime achievement award to him. He’s deeply loyal and beholden to both.

Is this his hamartia — his fatal flaw — that will become his undoing? We never quite know if he was able to make peace with any of it. All we know is something has to give…But I will leave it at that.

The unsung surprise of the film is the load of humor it manages end to end. Everyone is funny. The exchanges get outrageous to fit the larger-than-life characters and situations. It’s the kind of stuff you couldn’t make up if you tried. But the jokes play as a fine counterpoint to the grim reality of these men and their lifestyles.

In the later stages of life, as he prepares himself for death, Sheeran meets with a priest, which prove to be some of the most enlightening moments in the film. When asked if he has remorse, he matter-of-factly admits, not really, but even his choice to seek absolution is his attempt at something.

Scorsese continues in the stripe of Silence with some deeply spiritual and philosophical intercessions in what might otherwise seem a temporal and antithetical affair.  The truth is you cannot come to terms with such a life — or any life — without grappling with the questions of the great unknown after death.

In another scene, Sheeran seeks out a casket and a resting place for his body muttering to himself just how final death is. That it’s just the end. It’s curious coming from a man who knocked off so many people, but somehow he’s just coming to terms with it himself. Perhaps it’s what old age does to one.

This is not meant to be any sort of hint or indication (we want more films), but if this were to be the last film this group of luminary talents ever made, I would be all but content. The film taps into content and themes that have been integral aspects of Martin Scorsese’s career since the beginning. Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and even Harvey Keitel are all synonymous with the crime film — they share a common thread — a communal cinematic context and language.

My final thought is only this. The Irishman feels like Martin Scorsese’s Citizen Kane. I don’t mean it in the sense it’s his greatest film or the greatest film all time. Rather, in a thematic sense, they are kindred. Although Scorsese’s version includes crime and violence, the ends results are very much the same.

You have a man with a life crammed full of power and money and recognition, whatever, but at the end of the day, what did it get him? He clings to dog-eared photos of his kids whom he probably hasn’t seen in years.

When the priest tells him he’ll be back after Christmas, Sheeran looks up at him pitifully, acknowledging he’ll be around. He’s not going anywhere. He has no family. He has no one to care about him. All his buddies are gone, and he’s the last of them holding onto secrets that do him no good. It’s all meaningless.

It’s a striking final image. All I could think was, “Oh how the mighty have fallen.” Whether or not any of it was true or not (as the film seems to validate), what’s leftover is a paltry life. It’s a testament to everything we’ve witnessed thus far that we feel sorry for him.

4.5/5 Stars

Review: Taxi Driver (1976)

taxidriver1Well. Whatever it is, you should clean up this city here, because this city here is like an open sewer you know. It’s full of filth and scum. And sometimes I can hardly take it. ~ Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle

Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle is an American icon representing anyone and everyone who has ever felt like an outcast, outsider, or misfit. He’s the perfect embodiment of any of the angst or disgust that might surge through our veins at any given time. Except before I ever saw Martin Scorsese’s film, I always assumed him to be a thuggish villain. But his character is more complex than that. He’s far more relatable than I would have initially given him credit for.

The film actually opens feeling like the pilot of the Sitcom Taxi or something. There’s Bernard Hermann’s beautifully cool jazz-infused score and then the illuminating lights of an average New York evening. It feels strangely peaceful in spite of all that is going to go down.

Travis is an ex-Vietnam vet who takes a taxi driving job for the strangest of reasons. He just wants something that will have him working long hours and he isn’t too particular about what part of town he ends up in. From the get-go, he strikes the audience as a quiet almost silent observer of all that takes place around him on the streets every night. He’ll sit around with a couple cabbies as they chew the fat, but he’s essentially isolated — a repressed young man who doesn’t really express himself. His existence feels tragic and lonely, certainly not deadly.

taxidriver2There is a small beacon of hope when a pretty campaign volunteer named Betsy (Cybil Sheppard) catches his eye, and he has an extremely awkward interaction with her but it lands him a date. But Travis just doesn’t quite know how to act, he hasn’t learned what it means to be in a relationship and he has an error in judgment while they are out. However, he doesn’t see it that way. He feels his attempts at kindness were completely rejected.

Then, he also begins to notice a young hooker out on the streets and his next mission is to get her away from there back home. He thinks it’s the right thing to do and he means well but young streetwise Iris (Jodie Foster) doesn’t seem to want his charity. So once again Travis seems unwanted and not needed when he is trying to do something nice.

Travis even acknowledges to his colleague Wizard that he’s getting all twisted up inside and confused. He’s distraught and he has no way to deal with it so his outlet includes a heavy strength regimen and loading up on a ton of guns. Never a good sign, but it his mind’s eye it’s all to clean up the streets of the scum of the earth.

However, first he attends a rally for a presidential candidate that Betsy will be at and he has intent to cause harm, but he backs out at the last minute and goes to Plan B confronting Iris’s pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel) and shooting him. The inner demons of Travis are unleashed as he goes off, but his delusions of grandeur reassure him that this is all for Iris. This is for her good. All this bloodshed.

taxidriver4The final moments after his rampage have Travis receiving a letter from Irises parents who are grateful for his actions to save their daughter from corruption. Then, a fully recuperated Travis finds Cybil sitting in the back seat of his taxi cab in all her glory. It’s beyond his wildest dreams, which begs the question is this reality, or is this just a clever construction of his own brain? Another delusion of grandeur. It’s a wonderful open-ended finale.

Paul Schrader’s script is a wonderful character study giving introspection into one troubled man’s psyche. However, there is controversy on two fronts. It’s rumored that John Hinckley Jr. who tried to assassinate Ronald Reagan was influenced by this film and also the finale seems to reflect many people who commit mass shootings. Oftentimes they are people who are deeply troubled and are looking for some type of attention. But with that desire comes often deadly consequences.

taxidriver3Martin Scorsese’s film has also received pointed criticism for its violence which is hard to downplay. However, Taxi Driver remains interesting because it is not bloated with killing (in fact only one scene is actually bloody). Most of the film has to do with relationships or lack thereof because a lot of what Travis does is watch and listen. It might be Martin Scorsese in a cameo as a jealous husband or a presidential candidate asking Bickle’s opinion from the back seat. Furthermore, like any warm-blooded boy, he knows that Cybil Sheppard is a dream girl. And he has enough compassion to want Iris to have a normal childhood. It’s just that his conscientiousness is misdirected and subverted.

The film resigns itself to following this one man in the wasteland that is New York. It’s starkly beautiful and thought-provoking placing a troubled anti-hero in front a canvas of urban realism. I could never condone his behavior, but then again I could never be completely against him either.

4.5/5 Stars

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

silverlinings1There was something rather therapeutically soothing about coming back to Silver Linings Playbook. I must admit this time around I was not quite as drawn to the direction of David O. Russell, because in some scenes it felt like too much attention was brought to his camera. However, I loved Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and Rober De Niro, since each one of them is screwed up in their own unique ways. Although their story takes place in Philadelphia and a lot of talk is made about the Eagles, what these characters really are is a cross-section of humanity.

I was just thinking recently how I dislike the term “escapism” referring to watching movies and going to theaters to get away. I do not often consider that I go to movies to escape my life. Maybe I do sometimes, but I am fascinated by movies because they can tell us more about ourselves. More about what it is to be human and coping with all that is messed up — all that is broken.

Tiffany (Lawrence) and Patrick (Cooper), are both screwed up. There’s no getting past it. She’s a widow who got fired from her job for sleeping around and now she does dance as a sort of therapy. He just spent an 8-month stretch in a Psych ward after he caught his wife in the shower with one of her coworkers. Now whenever he hears his wedding song, he goes into an enraged fit. He tries to look for the silver lining in everything, but that does not stop him from hurting the ones he loves.

Tiffany and Patrick are made for each other, even if Patrick refuses to believe it. They both know what it is to be put through therapy, drugs, and the like after personal trauma. They both lack the common filter or etiquette that humanity usually requires. We love them anyway, in spite of these reasons or more likely because of these reasons.

De Niro is Patrick’s father and a man so invested in betting on Eagles football games that it drives his life. Superstitions run rampant in his household, but he refuses to acknowledge them, just like his son refuses to accept his own problems. It makes for some familial fireworks and interesting altercations, but at the end of the day, they are still family.

The whole film culminates in a dance competition that Tiffany and Patrick have been working up to for a long time. It has the big stakes that you would expect for a climatic event, but most importantly it is this moment in time where Patrick finally realizes Tiff is the girl for him. He finally sees what most of the audience saw all along. They are made for each other, and they can accept each other with all their idiosyncrasies. He continues living his life by The Silver Linings Playbook and it makes both Tiffany and him very happy.

4.5/5 Stars

The Best Films of Robert De Niro (1943-)

One of the things about acting is it allows you to live other people’s lives without having to pay the price.

1. Raging Bull
2.Goddfellas
3. The Godfather Part II
4. Taxi Driver
5. Once Upon a Time in America
6. Mean Streets
7. The Deer Hunter
8. Heat
9.Casino
10. Silver Linings Playbook
11. American Hustle
12. Brazil
13. A Bronx Tale
14. The King of Comedy
15. Midnight Run
16. The Untouchables
17. The Mission
18. 1900
19. Wag the Dog
20. Cape Fear

American Hustle (2013)

f88cd-american_hustle_2013_posterFrom the get-go, this film sets the tone when we are cheekily told that “some of this actually happened.” Not that it’s based on a true story or based on actual events, but some of this might be true and other parts might be livened up a bit. Then we are thrown into a story we do not quite understand as of yet. All we know is that it’s the 1970s, the hair is crazy, the clothes are tacky by today’s standards, and America’s “Horse With No Name” still sounds good even after all these years.

For me, if this film was all about the story it would be okay, but the reason to watch it is really for the characters. Each one is a caricature who we can hardly take seriously, and yet in many respects, they are going through some very serious stuff. Christian Bale is a con man with an epic comb-over, a pot belly to match, and a Bronx accident, wearing his ever-present shades. He is one of the smartest con men around, but he also has a family life since he married a widowed woman and adopted her young son.

Amy Adams is the stylishly smart dame he meets at a party, and the two of them start a lucrative partnership upping the profitability of his conning enterprise.  Adams character hustles everyone with her fake English accent and identity, that over time it seems like she even seems to believe it herself until it is too late.

They are flying high and the two of them are drawn to the confidence and smarts they see in each other. However, in one instance they are not quite careful enough, and they have the Feds giving them heat. Namely, Bradley Cooper’s character who is out to make a name for himself. He is a man will a lot of attitude and a primped hairstyle, yet he seemingly knows very little. He forces Bale and Adams to work under him in order to trap others and of course they do.

But his plan becomes so big that the con becomes extremely volatile. It involves an Atlantic City mayor played by Jeremy Renner, the Mob, some congressmen, and even a senator, who have all unwittingly gotten themselves into something illegal.

Bale and Adams are trapped living lies that they must stop at some point because he has formed a bond with Renner and she is still masquerading as Lady Edith Greensley.

The final act ends with one final con, and I must admit that I was satisfied with the ending because as a member of the audience I expected a twist to come and, sure enough, it came. But I would have never have guessed it. It ultimately lived up to its name American Hustle.

I think what makes the performances good in this film are not the fact that they are lifelike or even realistic, but they are, in fact, larger than life. Sure, people like Irving, Richie Dimaso, Sydney Prosser, and Rosalyn probably did walk this earth, but the film highlights all their quirks and idiosyncrasies. Whether it is how they talk, dress, or even how they do their hair. Furthermore, they have even messier and crazier personal lives than their hair, and that’s saying a lot. These are not the kind of folks that you would want for friends, and yet could it be possible that there is a little bit of these characters in each one of us? Do we still live in a world where the Carmines are the victims and the real perpetrators get away scot-free? It’s something to ask ourselves.

I’m not sure why people compare this film to Scorsese, perhaps because it is a crime film, it takes place in the 1970s, it features the Mob, or it shows off one of Scorsese’s acting icons in Robert de Niro. No matter the reason, American Hustle is a separate entity that seems completely different from Scorsese. That does not make it bad, just unique. And that it is. You have to give David O. Russell credit for teaming his two previous casts (The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook) in this one for an acting extravaganza. It will be difficult to top this one as far as acting power goes. I must admit I was a sucker for the music too.

4.5/5 Stars

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

154c0-silver_linings_playbook_posterStarring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence with Robert De Niro, this film opens with a man named Pat who is being released from a mental health facility in Philadelphia. As he tries to recover from a tragic event in his marriage, he moves back in with his parents, goes to therapy sessions, and improves himself while struggling to keep his emotions in check. His traumatic past and bipolar disorder make life difficult but then he meets a young, straightforward widow named Tiffany. Because of their unique situations, they form an odd type of friendship. Eventually Tiffany agrees to give a letter to Pat’s wife if in return he trains as her partner for a dance competition. At the same time Pat’s superstitious father makes a giant bet on an Eagles football game as well as their contest which are both happening on the same day.

It finally arrives and they get ready to show off what they practiced only to have the unexpected occur. In the end, a new Pat realizes how he really feels and chooses to live his life the way he wants.

This film had a lot of coarse language and it was depressing at times. Despite this, the acting was great and it ultimately gave off a positive outlook that focused on the silver linings in life. The direction was solid and I also appreciated the soundtrack. Furthermore, this film tackled the difficult topic of mental illness head on with a good result.

4/5 Stars

Taxi Driver (1976)

d184d-taxi_driver_posterDirected by Martin Scorsese, the film stars Robert De Niro with Jodie Foster and Cybil Sheppard. The story opens with a Vietnam vet, Travis Bickle (De Niro) who takes a job as a taxi driver. Travis is a quiet and lonely man who is turned off by the scum and filth he sees on the streets of New York. He becomes enthralled with a beautiful campaign worker who eventually turns him off. Then he also comes in contact with a young girl who makes her living working the streets. His frustration deepens and he begins to work out and collect weapons. It becomes obvious he is about to explode and after an initial failed attempt he does  just that. However, ironically the aftermath leaves him as a hero. Travis is an interesting character because you feel sorry for him and yet he does things that are truly wrong. I found Bernard Hermann’s score, the voice-over narration, and the cryptic ending all to be interesting parts of this film.

4.5/5 Stars

Goodfellas (1990)

Starring Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, and Joe Pesci with direction by Martin Scorcese, the film follows the true story of Henry Hill and his life as a mobster. Early on in the 50s Hentry began doing work for the influential mobster Paulie (Paul Sorvino). He began skipping school and slowly begins making a lucrative living with the mob.  Soon he meets Jimmy Conway (De Niro) who loves to hijack trucks as well as the foul-mouthed, quick-tempered robber Tommy DeVito (Pesci). Over time Henry becomes successful after an Air France robbery and eventually he gets married to a woman named Karen (Lorraine Bracco). However, Henry gets caught up in a murder and he also starts seeing another woman. He still has problems but he begins a lucrative drug trade and the Lufthansa heist is pulled. The heat is on and Henry is eventually caught and decides to rat on his friends. He is then forced to live life as a nobody. I appreciated the period music, voice over, tracking shots, and freeze frames. The language of DeVito and others is tiresome but it shows how inherently corrupt they are.

5/5 Stars

Raging Bull (1980)

This autobiographical boxing film directed by Martin Scorsese, stars Robert De Niro, Kathy Moriarty, and Joe Pesci. The film begins with a flashback to 1941 when Jake LaMotta (De Niro) lost a close fight. However, after that loss he begins his run for the middle weight title. Despite a difficult marriage, Jake’s brother and manager introduces him to the young and beautiful Vickie. He continues to fight and in 1947 he is married once again. LaMotta has his share of troubles in the ring but he eventually becomes champion. At the same time his personal life is in a shambles thanks to his constant jealousy and paranoia towards his wife and brother. First, he is estranged from Joey and his career declines. Then after his retirement, Vickie files for a divorce. His days are spent entertaining in nightclubs as a washed up boxer. I enjoyed the reference to On the Waterfront at the end and despite the coarse language, the film had good characters, cinematography, and directing. LaMotta’s life is one that I hope no one would have to experience because there is so much pain and anger in it.

5/5 Stars

The Godfather Part II (1974)

Starring a cast including Al Pacino and Robert De Niro with director Francis Ford Coppola, the film opens with a young Vito Corleone coming to America. The story switches gears to 1958 in Nevada where Michael Corleone has successfully moved the family. However, after a close call Michael goes to Miami and then Cuba to attend to some business having to do with a man named Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg). The story alternates off and on to Vito as a young man who begins making a life for himself. Upon returning to Michael, he is in a senate hearing where he narrowly avoids being indicted for his activities. From that point on Michael shows no mercy to anyone who is in his way and that includes his family. By the end of the film he is no longer the former idealistic Michael but a callous, cold mobster.

This film was a good installment of The Godfather, acting as both a sequel and prequel. However, at times the split story did seem unnecessary but it does show a contrast between Vito and Michael. The acting, the score, and the directing were all very good. I will let others decide which installment is superior but I will say that this film shows the darker side of Michael. Ironically, he worked so hard to be strong for his family but as he feared he ultimately lost them.

4.5/5 Stars