In 2018, Netflix crashed through Oscar biases with Alfonso Cuaron’s personal epic Roma and this year they have their sights set on even bigger prizes. The streaming service has built an empire of original content (and debt) and put up the $150 million budget for Martin Scorsese’s decades-spanning crime drama, The Irishman. It’s a fitting reunion for Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, and Scorsese, and then to add Al Pacino on top, well it all makes for one supremely entertaining and occasionally striking movie experience. However, I think some critics are getting a bit too carried away with their plaudits. While entertaining throughout its mammoth 3.5 hours, this is much more Casino than Goodfellas.
We follow the life of Frank Sheeran (De Niro), a Philadelphia-based truck driver who rose to be a Teamster union rep and, reportedly, a prolific hired gun for the local mob, headed by Russell Bufalino (Pesci). Sheeran is tasked with helping Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino) with his business, which helps the larger contingent of organized crime that used the Teamsters multi-million-dollar pension as their own slush fund to pay for projects and schemes. After he loses his leadership position, Hoffa begins to think of himself on the same level as the tough guys and just as protected. Sheeran tries to turn his friend back from the self-destructive path he seems destined for, and ultimately, it’s Frank Sheeran who says he pulled the trigger killing Hoffa (is this a spoiler?).
There are moments that just sing in this movie, buoyed by a wonderful film alchemy of the actors, the storytelling, the skill of Scorsese and his longtime collaborators like editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and it can feel exhilarating. There’s a rich world of day-to-day detail from the character interactions and mob politics, and once Hoffa comes onscreen the movie becomes something more and better. It’s just as much Jimmy Hoffa’s movie as it is Frank Sheeran’s. Here is a live-wire character bursting with unpredictability, later to his great deficit, and who pushes the other characters around in a way that creates instant tension and realignment. Considering the selling point of the movie is its perspective from the claimed killer of Hoffa, it only makes sense that these moments are allowed the most attention. Hoffa sees himself as a champion of the little guy, as an ideologue trying to make life better, never mind his own extravagance, ego, and inability to let go of grievances. Hoffa was the head of the Teamsters union for twenty years and was a well-known public figure, somebody people like Peggy Sheeran (Anna Paquin) could idolize unlike her father and his other cohorts she despised. He’s a larger-than-life figure and those theatrics find a perfect match with Pacino and his bombastic nature. It’s no wonder he steals the movie. Pacino is terrific and has the clearest arc of any character onscreen, a meaty role that gives Pacino new life. I predict he’s the front-runner for supporting Oscar gold. I was transfixed by the amount of details that Scorsese and screenwriter Steve Zallian (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) imbue in every scene, propelled by Frank’s narration and a dark sense of humor. It’s very easy to get immersed in this criminal underworld and its many machinations, which provides a steady stream of information points to tantalize. If one scene isn’t working, just give the movie a few minutes and another avenue might open to prove newly fascinating. It makes a difference on its running time, making 3.5 hours feel more mercifully like 2.5 hours. Of course, once it’s released onto Netflix, I feel like its size and scope will become less unwieldy for viewers.
Because of that surfeit of detail, I think The Irishman would have better benefited from being adapted into a miniseries than as a single movie that happens to be 15 minutes longer than Titanic. The finished film feels rather episodic, like three movies attached into one; the introduction into a life of crime and rising in the mob, the friendship and fall of Hoffa, and the finale as an old man. All of these segments have genuine interest and compelling drama but I think they would have been even more compelling with a larger narrative canvas to play out upon. That way each episode could have its own beginning/middle/end and play its part adding to the larger whole, which is essentially what scenes should be doing anyway for a story. The problem is that The Irishman gets a little lost in its own minutia in the middle and the plot stalls. It feels a little too taken with itself. It feels like we’re experiencing the same information just in more settings. How many moments do we need to show Hoffa pushing away sound advice, making enemies of allies, and dooming himself? Admittedly, the Hoffa portion of the movie is the most compelling, and longest, segment of the movie. It’s the best because of Pacino’s spotlight and from the personal involvement in Sheeran, pushing his loyalties to the test when he genuinely grows close to Hoffa and realizes he’ll be the one that has to eliminate his friend. It’s the most dramatic and harrowing and most interesting part of the movie (and no, not the somber final 30 minutes). I think it would have had even more punch over the course of multiple episodes of material and momentum. By going the miniseries route, the film could have also stripped its second and entirely unnecessary framing device, having the men drive their wives across the Midwest to attend Bill Bufalino’s (Ray Romano) wedding. The short scenes fail to lead to any import until it’s revealed late what also happened during this fateful weekend. It’s a long wait to justify its placement, and even after that it doesn’t feel like the occasional road trip updates were worthwhile.
Much has been made from several dazzled film critics and online pundits about the movie’s concluding half hour, which follows the “after” of a mafioso’s life. We got a taste of this in the conclusion of Goodfellas after Henry Hill and family were relocated to schlubby mundanity through witness protection, implying the boring life that awaited, but The Irishman dedicates its conclusion to demystifying these mob men. Few of them live to old age, so already Sheeran is the exception (he died at age 83 in 2003) but he’s also incapable of introspection. That gives the final half hour a change of pace and an air of contemplation but it’s stagnated. Frank’s family wants nothing to do with him, everyone from his earlier life has passed away, and he shows little regret for his life’s actions, shocking a priest, his only regular visitor. I suppose one could surmise the self-deluded and sad existence of this man who refuses to accept accountability, but I found this final thirty minutes to be interesting, yes, but far from revelatory. I think critics are doing a fair amount of projection by searching for some kind of tidy, accumulative meaning, as if Scorsese is providing some wise, decades-earned statement on his own famed works highlighting the flashy lives of very bad people doing very bad things. People are a little too desperate for The Irishman to provide that neat hook, that definitive statement, and it’s just not there. It may have been too “movie land convenient” but I was begging for a final confrontation from Peggy.
The de-aging CGI is the source of much of the film’s gargantuan budget, which was why studios balked before Netflix welcomed Scorsese with eager arms. The first display of the de-aging effect is jarring and jarringly bad. We see Pesci and De Niro as 40-year-old men and it’s initially horrifying. The effect looks wrong, like somebody drew over their faces to provide some degree of cell-shaded dimension (think of the video game Borderlands). There are also elements that will just never look right, namely the elasticity of the skin, which looks overly smooth and polished, reminding me of the doll faces of the stop-motion film, Anomalisa. It gets better from there. Interiors and lower-light environments are better at masking the unreality. After a while you simply grow accustomed to it and the characters are aging anyway, which means the effect is rarely used after the first half of The Irishman. It’s impressive at parts but even with the digital facelift, these are still 70-year-old men moving their 70-year-old bodies with new shiny faces. There’s a moment when a younger Sheeran beats and stomps on a grocer and it reminded me of professional wrestling with the stiff movements of one participant followed by the extravagant physical overreaction of the recipient. Captain Marvel is still the champ at actor de-aging.
There’s also the fairly strong possibility that Sheeran made all of this up. Well into his twilight years, he reportedly recounted his amazing tale to a medical malpractice lawyer before he died, and that became the 2003 book, I Heard You Paint Houses. An August 2019 article by Slate.com writer Bill Tonelli (“The Lies of the Irishman”) gives a pretty thorough rundown of the facts of the case, which align in one direction. All of the FBI agents during Sheeran’s time, as well as the local officials, and surviving criminal actors, all come to the same conclusion that Sheeran has grossly overstated his role in mob matters and outright fabricated his most sensational claims. According to Tonelli: “Most amazingly, Sheeran did all that without ever being arrested, charged, or even suspected of those crimes by any law enforcement agency, even though officials were presumably watching him for most of his adult life. To call him the Forrest Gump of organized crime scarcely does him justice. In all the history of the mafia in America or anywhere else, really, nobody even comes close.” It does seem far-fetched, but the next question is whether the enjoyment of the movie matters at all if the story it’s based upon is ninety-nine percent hooey? While I think the impact of the movie is slightly blunted with a fictional account, it plays larger into a self-aggrandizing theme and the first framing device of the movie, having Sheeran narrate his life experiences as an old man, left to rot in a nursing home. Perhaps he’s exaggerating to make himself feel more important and grant himself something of a legacy that is denied to him by a lifetime of self-serving choices that have left him abandoned by family. In this regard, there’s a strange meta-textual level that even helps support the larger tragedy and loneliness of these men, in case you needed it underlined.
There’s a delightful feeling of getting the gang back together for Scorsese’s massive, ambitious, and thrilling return to the world of gangster cinema. There are so many characters that it can be hard to keep things straight as we zip through decades, de-aging, framing devices, Boardwalk Empire supporting actors, prison time, nursing homes, and Jim Norton as a young Don Rickles. I wish the story had been parlayed into an epic miniseries rather than a movie. The finished film is certainly long and imposing but also compelling and entertaining. The personalities don’t have quite the pop as Pacino, a rollicking screen presence relishing the spotlight, but the rock star bravado has been replaced with a somber reality of self-cultivated isolation. Pesci is terrific in what might be his most nuanced, insular, and quiet role of his career. I wish he would continue acting. De Niro is suitably gruff and has a few scenes of trying to hold back a cascade of emotions, but he’s more our impassive face into a world of crime and vengeance. I don’t think the final conclusion has the power that others have claimed and is a result of projection. The Irishman is an entertaining deep dive that I only wish could have gone even deeper.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Quentin Tarantino has been playing in the realm of genre filmmaking for much of the last twenty years. He’s made highly artful, Oscar-winning variations on B-movies and grindhouse exploitation pictures. There are some film fans that wished he would return to the time of the 90s where he was telling more personal, grounded stories. His ninth movie, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, is Tarantino returning to the landscape of his youth, the Hollywood back lots and television serials that gave birth to his budding imagination. Tarantino has said this is his most personal film and it’s easy to see as a love letter to his influences. It’s going to be a divisive movie with likely as many moviegoers finding it boring as others find it spellbinding.
In February 1969, actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is struggling to recapture his past glory as a popular TV star from a decade prior. Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is Rick’s longtime stuntman, personal driver, and possibly only real friend. Rick’s next-door neighbor happens to be Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), a rising star and the wife to famed director Roman Polanski. All three are on a collision course with the Manson family.
The thing you must know before embarking into a theater to see all of the 160 minutes of Tarantino’s latest opus is that it’s the least plot-driven of all his movies, and it’s also in the least hurry. This feels like a hang-out movie through Tarantino’s memories of an older Hollywood that he grew up relishing. It’s very much a loving homage to the people who filled his head with dreams, with specific affection given to the life of an actor. Tarantino is exploring three different points of an actor’s journey through fame; Sharon Tate is the in-bloom star highly in demand, Rick Dalton is the one who has tasted fame but is hanging on as tightly as he can to his past image and wondering if he’s hit has-been status, and then there’s Cliff Booth who was a never-was, a replaceable man happy to be behind the scenes and who has met his lot in life with a Zen-like acceptance. Each character is at a different stage of the rise-and-fall trajectory of Hollywood fame and yet they remain there. This isn’t a movie where Rick starts in the dumps and turns his life around, or even where it goes from worse to worse. Each character kind of remains in a stasis, which will likely drive many people mad. It will feel like nothing of import is happening and that Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is more a collection of scenes than a whole.
What elevated the film was how much I enjoyed hanging out with these characters. Tarantino is such a strong storyteller that even when he’s just noodling around there are pleasures to be had. Tarantino movies have always favored a vignette approach, unwieldy scenes that serve as little mini movies with their own beginnings, middles, and often violently climactic ends. An excellent example of this is 2009’s Inglourious Basterds where the moments are brilliantly staged and developed while also serving to push the larger narrative forward. That’s missing with Hollywood, the sense of momentum with the characters. We’re spending time and getting to know them, watching them through various tasks and adventures over the course of two days on sets, at home, and on a former film set-turned-ranch for a strange commune. If you’re not enjoying the characters, there won’t be as much for you as a viewer, and I accept that. None of the central trio will crack Tarantino’s list for top characters, but each provides a different viewpoint in a different facet of the industry, though Sharon Tate is underutilized (more on that below). It’s a bit of glorified navel-gazing for Tarantino’s ode to Hollywood nostalgia. There are several inserts that simply exist to serve as silly inclusions that seem to be scratching a personal itch for the director, less the story. I was smiling at most and enjoyed the time because it felt like Tarantino’s affection translated from the screen. I enjoyed hanging out with these people as they explored the Hollywood of yesteryear.
DiCaprio hasn’t been in a movie since winning an Oscar for 2015’s The Revenant and he has been missed. His character is in a very vulnerable place as he’s slipping from the radars of producers and casting agents, filling a string of TV guest appearances as heavies to be bested by the new hero. He’s self-loathing, insecure, boastful, and struggling to reconcile what he may have permanently lost. Has he missed his moment? Is his time in the spotlight eclipsed? There’s a new breed of actors emerging, typified by a little girl who chooses to stay in character in between filming. Everything is about status, gaining it or losing it, and Rick is desperate. There’s a terrific stretch where he’s playing another heavy on another TV Western and you get the highs and lows, from him struggling to remember his lines and being ashamed by the embarrassment of his shaky professionalism, to showing off the talent he still has, if only given the right opportunity. DiCaprio is highly entertaining as he sputters and soars.
The real star of the film is Pitt (The Big Short) playing a man who seems at supernatural ease no matter the circumstance. He’s got that unforced swagger of a man content with his life. He enjoys driving Rick around and providing support to his longtime friend and collaborator. He has a shady past where he may or may not have killed his wife on purpose, but regardless apparently he “got away with it.” This sinister back-story doesn’t seem to jibe with the persona we see onscreen, and maybe that’s the point, or maybe it’s merely a means to rouse suspicion whether he may become persuaded by the Manson family he visits later in the movie dropping off a hitchhiker he’s encountered all day long. The role of Cliff seems to coast on movie star cool. There is supreme enjoyment just watching Pitt be. Watch him feed his dog to a trained routine, watch him fix a broken TV antenna and show off his ageless abs, and watch him navigate trepidatious new territory even as others are trying to intimidate him. It’s Pitt’s movie as far as I’m concerned. He was the only character I felt nervous about when minimal danger presented itself. There’s something to be said that the best character is the unsung one meant to take the falls for others, the kind of back-breaking work that often goes unnoticed and unheralded to keep the movie illusion alive.
There aren’t that many surprises with Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood as it moseys at its own loping pace. It reminded me of a Robert Altman movie or even a Richard Linklater film. It’s definitely different from Tarantino’s more genre-fed excursions of the twenty-first century. It’s a softer movie without the undercurrent of malice and looming violence. There is the Manson family and Tarantino knows our knowledge of the Manson family so we’re waiting for their return and that fateful night in August, 1969 like a ticking clock. It wouldn’t be a Tarantino movie without an explosion of bloody violence as its climax, and he delivers again, but I was shocked how uproariously funny I found the ending. I laughed throughout but as the movie reached its conclusion I was doubled over with laughter and clapping along. There’s a flashback where Cliff and a young Bruce Lee challenge each other to a fight, and it’s so richly entertaining. The phony film clips are also a consistent hoot, especially when Rick goes to Italy. It’s a funnier movie than advertised and, despite its ending, a far less violent movie than his reputation.
As Tarantino’s memory collection, the level of loving homage can start to eat the narrative, and this is most noticeable with the handling of Sharon Tate. The initial worries that Tarantino would exploit the horrendous Manson murders for his own neo-pop pulp was unfounded. Tate is portrayed with empathy and compassion, and as played by Robbie she nearly glides through the film as if she were an angel gracing the rest of us unfortunate specimens. She has a great moment where she enters a movie theater playing a comedy she is a supporting player in. The camera focuses on Robbie’s (I,Tonya) face as an array of micro expressions flash as she takes in the approving laughter of the crowd. It’s a heartwarming moment. But all of that doesn’t make Tate a character. She’s more a symbol of promise, a young starlet with the world at her fingertips, the beginning phase of fame. Even the Manson clan doesn’t play much significance until the final act. Charles Manson is only witnessed in one fleeting scene. I thought Tarantino was including Tate in order to right a historical wrong and empower a victim into a champion, and that doesn’t quite happen. I won’t say further than that though her narrative significance is anticlimactic. You could have easily cut Sharon Tate completely out of this movie and not affected it much at all. In fact, given the 160-minute running time, that might have been a good idea. The movie never really comes to much of something, whether it’s a statement, whether it’s a definitive end, it just feels like we’ve run out of stories rather than crafted an ending that was fated to arrive given the preceding events.
The Tarantino foot fetish joke has long been an obvious and hacky criticism that I find too many people reach for to seem edgy or clever, so I haven’t mentioned it in other reviews. He does feature feet in his films but they’ve had purpose before, from arguing over the exact implications of a foot rub in Pulp Fiction to Uma Thurman commanding her big toe to wiggle and break years of entropy in Kill Bill. However, with Hollywood, it feels like Tarantino is now trolling his detractors. There are three separate sequences featuring women’s feet, two of which just casually place them right in the camera lens. At this point in his career, I know he knows this lame critique, and I feel like this is his response. It’s facetious feet displays.
When it comes to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, if you’re not digging the vibe, man, then there’s less to latch onto as an audience member. It’s a definite hang-out movie reminiscent of Altman or Linklater where we watch characters go about their lives, providing peaks into a different world. It’s a movie about meandering but I always found it interesting or had faith that was rewarded by Tarantino. It doesn’t just feel like empty nostalgia masquerading as a movie. It’s funnier and more appealing than I thought it would be, and even though it’s 160 minutes it didn’t feel long. The acting by DiCaprio and Pitt is great, as is the general large ensemble featuring lots of familiar faces from Tarantino’s catalogue. I do think the inclusion of Sharon Tate serves more of a symbolic purpose than a narrative purpose and wish the movie had given her more to do or even illuminated her more as a character. However, the buddy film we get between DiCaprio and Pitt is plenty entertaining. It might not be as narratively ambitious or intricate or even as satisfying as Tarantino’s other works, but Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is a fable for a Hollywood that may have only existed in Tarantino’s mind, but he’s recreated it with uncompromising affection.
Nate’s Grade: B+
I was anticipating bad, I was anticipating outlandishly bad, but nothing can prepare you for how stunning and jaw-droppingly awful Adam Sandler’s reported comedy Jack and Jill truly is. The movie swept the Razzie Awards in all categories this year, a historic feat. Sandler plays a rich ad exec and his braying, boorish twin sister, who Al Pacino, in a strangely committed performance as himself, falls in love with for no discernible reason. I’ve seen my fair share of craptacular cinema, and yet this movie is bad on a rarely seen level of human tragedy; it feels like the movie came from a different dimension, where they had no concepts of human relations, reactions, expectations, or senses of humor. It feels like you’re watching a cultural artifact of a civilization in decline. I haven’t been a fan of Sandler’s brand of naughty-yet-safe humor for a while, but this movie is weirdly cruel to all sorts of people, like Mexicans, atheists, adopted kids, Jews, and human beings with working senses of humor. The quality of comedy includes gems like, “Play twister with your sister,” and, “These chimichangas are making a run for the border.” The rampant and nakedly transparent product placement for Carnival Cruise and Dunkin’ Donuts is obscene. This is a charmless, witless film, and when it tries to wring actual emotion out of its daft scenario, the whole enterprise just implodes. Jack and Jill is so odious, torturous, reprehensibly bad that it feels like one of the joke movies that Sandler made in 2009’s Funny People. You feel like the entire movie is one long joke put on by a contemptuous Sandler. I think my good pal Eric Muller had it right; we’re on the tail end of Sandler’s deal with the devil. Jack and Jill is why the terrorists hate us.
Nate’s Grade: F
Typically you can smell something wrong when a movie is continually delayed or held from release for well over a year. The serial killer thriller 88 Minutes actually began filming during the fall of 2005 (!). It was released in the United States well after it had been available on DVD in Europe for over a year. After watching all 108 minutes of 88 Minutes, it’s easy to see why the studio and the film’s astounding 20 producers (!!) were trying to hide this from public eyes.
Dr. Jack Gramm (Al Pacino) is the top forensic psychiatrist in Seattle. His testimony is responsible for convicting Jon Forster (Neal McDonough) of a death sentence. Many years later, Jon is now hours away from execution and still professing his innocence, claiming the real “Seattle Slayer” is still out there. Gramm works as a college professor and he can still woo the young ladies and beds them regularly. His assistant (Amy Brenneman) informs Gramm that a woman in his class has been murdered and her murder is patterned after the “Seattle Slayer” killings. Gramm believes that Forster is collaborating with someone on the outside to cast doubt on his conviction. Then as Gramm walks to class he gets an anonymous phone call that tells him he has 88 minutes to live. Gramm scrambles to try and use the time to figure out who is targeting him, framing him, and why. Could it be his assistant, his T.A. (Alicia Witt), his skeptical students (Benjamin McKenzie, Leelee Sobieski), the skeezy campus cop, or maybe the starting second baseman for the Seattle Mariners?
First off, the time frame doesn’t work at all. 88 minutes is too short a time frame to do crack investigation, and Gramm runs all over the city of Seattle at least three times without getting caught in any gridlock. The movie establishes a real-time ticking clock but then decides to follow a different set of time. Occasionally the movie will be faster than real life, meaning that it says 10 minutes have passed when only say 6 have, and occasionally the movie will be slower than real life, like when the third act probably takes all of 10 minutes in the film’s universe. It’s not consistent and points out the flaw of the structure. The 88-minute countdown was supposed to add a feeling of suspense but what it does is add an extra level of incredulity. There is no way that 88 minutes would be a sufficient time for the killer to stage murder and mayhem around a large metropolitan city known for inclement weather. Seriously, is the killer trying to set unreasonable personal goals? Why not a three-hour window of time? That way the killer could have a healthy planning period without worrying that everything would collapse if they got stuck in traffic. Also, the 88-minute time frame allows glimpses into the anal retentive nature of our killer. Gramm is harassed by phone calls updating him on his declining time, but what’s truly special is when the killer defaces Gramm’s car saying how long he has to live to the minute. The killer must have known to the second when Gramm would come by his car because had the doc taken a different route, gotten a coffee, gone to the bathroom, or performed whatever other million actions then the death threat would be inaccurate.
Next, all the women are helpless sycophants. They think the world of Gramm and several of these twenty-something college girls have big time crushes on the aged Pacino. It’s hard to take seriously the idea that Gramm, in this context, is still a Lothario that he can bed any coed he sets his sleepy eyes upon. The fact that the movie opens with him waking up from his latest and naked conquest already gives the film a squeamish start, but when multiple characters all confess to having crushes on Gramm then the whole idea transforms into an uncomfortable stroking of Pacino’s vanity and virility. I suppose I shouldn’t expect too much from the plethora of female characters because they’re all in need of comfort and every one of them winds up a pitiful damsel in distress. We’re supposed to believe these are strong and capable women, all of them working alongside a criminal expert so perhaps they know a thing or two about self-defense. They fawn over the man and then inexplicably wind up in danger. Occasionally the women will experience dramatic setbacks and they all take a backseat toward getting a hug from Gramm. These women react to the sight of death in puzzling ways and then will just as easily move on to another topic.
This is the kind of wretched movie where a flashback tragedy is defined by a memory so inane that it becomes insulting. Gramm keeps flashing back to a simple memory of his long deceased younger sister; she is running along the bank of a rather filthy looking river with a kite trailing inches behind her. Now, 88 Minutes is the type of movie where she has to giggle innocently and say something ridiculously non-descript, which in this case is, “[Giggle], dad look at the kite.” Of course Gramm is not her father (or is he?) and her call to look at the kite makes little sense because 1) its string is about three feet so it cannot go very high at all, and 2) it’s usually flying lower than the girl. I just find this image, this idea, this whole flashback construct to be emblematic of how truly awful and derivative and excruciating 88 Minutes can be.
I must confess there is one scene in 88 Minutes that I will remember for the rest of my life specifically because of how ridiculously appalling it is. Few scenes cause me to simultaneously stare in wide-eyed amazement and resist the urge to vomit. Here goes. Gramm is confronted by his FBI agent pal (William Forsythe) who has some bad news for Gramm. It turns out Gramm’s semen was found inside the “vaginal cavity” of the victim. We know Gramm wasn’t sexually involved with her because he was sexually involved with our opening naked escort lady, Sara Pollard (Leah Caims). Gramm then argues that someone out there framed him by killing Sara Pollard (oh don’t act surprised), retrieving Gramm’s semen from inside her, and then injecting it into the “vaginal cavity” of the victim. Hearing an actor of Pacino’s credit verbalize this theory is akin to having the “sex talk” with your parents, nay, grandparents — it’s just so intensely uncomfortable to watch. I just picture a lab tech with a long syringe that has to run around Seattle to make his semen import/export deadlines. This one icky moment stands out as the most ridiculously awful in a movie that is nothing but collective scenes of awful.
88 Minutes has no characters, only red herrings. Each of the numerous supporting characters is given the chance to act suspiciously and for no real good reason. Gramm takes his turn going through accusing nearly every supporting character he comes across as being in league with Forster. The screenplay even establishes characters like the painfully named Guy LaForge (Stephen Moyer, True Blood‘s Bill the Vampire) who serves no purpose other than to wear a leather jacket and squint in backgrounds.
Forget anything approaching characterization because writer Gary Scott Thompson (The Fast and the Furious) has created a script that is woeful in every department, including thrills. The reveal of the killer is mishandled, as is most every plot point, and I’m at a total loss at the rationale of attempting to commit murder in a building the killer called in a bomb threat. Yeah there may not be students but there will be plenty of police sniffing around. More than half of the scenes involve people talking on cell phones. The dialogue is unintentionally hilarious more often than not, with lines like “Someone has penetrated my most secret place” and, “If I can’t forgive you I don’t deserve you,” and the killer taunting, “You see Jacko, I’m a true believer.” Need I remind you of the “vaginal cavity” conversation? This is a complete laughable mess that would have been just another half-rate direct-to-TV movies airing late nights on cable channels were it not for Pacino’s involvement.
Pacino doesn’t even try to hide his disillusionment with the movie. He comes across as sleepy-eyed to the point of being a zombie with a permanent case of bedhead (seriously, Pacino’s crazy hair steals the show). The man is going through the motions to collect a paycheck, and he even gets a couple scenes to work up the frothy barking Pacino voice that he has settled into for the past 15 years of acting. He never seems to be worried that he only has so many minutes to live, so why should we bother sweating? The rest of the cast is awful and they were likely lured to this doomed project because of the chance to work alongside Pacino. Leelee Sobieski must be singled out for being particularly atrocious, especially when she tries to play a tough girl. This has got to be her worst performance since she started speaking. Then again, she has worked with Uwe Boll (Fun fact: one of 88 Minutes‘ many producers is Boll’s longtime producer).
88 Minutes is bad in every possible manner of filmmaking. This is an embarrassment for everyone whose name’s is attached to this film. From the overly anxious musical score, to the choppy editing, to the lackluster cinematography, to the abysmal story and outlandish acting and the lazy direction, 88 Minutes is a cinematic catastrophe. It should only be watched at a safe distance and only with the intention of derisive enjoyment. Because while this movie fails at every level it may just end up becoming the funniest comedy of the year.
Nate’s Grade: D
Much more like 11 than 12, this latest Ocean’s caper is just as preposterous as all the others but remembers that the audience needs to have fun too. Danny (George Clooney) and his baker’s dozen are plotting revenge on Willie Bank (Al Pacino, looking like a leather couch), a ruthless casino mogul who pushed old friend Rueben (Elliot Gould) out of a business agreement. The boys must outwit casino workers, modern technology, and a super computer able to detect pupil dilation in order to fleece Bank’s Vegas eyesore. Thankfully, all of the players are back and given tasks to do, and some of the means of their scheme are ingenious. How do you pass a lie detector tests? Place a tack in your shoe so that all your truthful answers match the intensity of your false ones. How do you get your hands on rigging dice? You send a couple guys to work in the Mexican factory and, why not, start a worker’s revolt. Ocean’s Thirteen glides along almost too smoothly, barely stopping to enjoy the crazy amount of absurd machinations before they fly by. The dialogue is packed with coded terms and the film doesn’t even stop to explain them. The movie works on the contact high of cool it luxuriates in, but unlike Ocean’s Twelve, this time the gang is given an objective, allows the audience in on their plot, and then we sit back and watch the execution. Steven Soderbergh and the gang have created a slick and amusing sequel. It lacks the freshness of the first go-round in 2001, but Ocean’s Thirteen is the most satisfying three-quel so far in a summer already weighed down by them.
Nate’s Grade: B
It’s the feel-good movie of the year revolving around a lunkhead mobster (Ben Affleck) and his mentally challenged kipnapee and their attempts to covert a lesbian hitman (Jennifer Lopez) in between her yoga/horrific monologues concerning the superiority of female genitalia. Believe the hype people; Gigli is indeed as bad as they have told you. It’s not even entertainingly bad, like Bulletproof Monk, no folks; Gigli is just mundane and awful. During the entire two hour stretch, which feels much much longer, I kept saying one thing aloud: “How could anyone making this think they were making a goodmovie?” Did they think audiences would find it funny that Affleck’s mother (the mother from My Big Fat Greek Wedding) shows us her big fat Greek behind? Did they really think that a mentally retarded kid (who has an affinity for gangster rap and wishes to travel to the mythical “Baywatch”) would come off as endearing? Well instead it comes across as insulting. And what else is insulting is the laugh-out-loud dialogue Lopez is forced to spit out concerning her attraction for women. I can’t think of any actress that could say the line, “I love my pussy” convincingly. And I’m sure a lot of actresses out there have true affection for it. The writing is just atrocious. And so much else fails as well. The score is a perplexing mix of upbeat jazz and inappropriate string orchestra. I don’t understand what emotions they were going for during scenes in Gigli but a full string orchestra playing music better suited for a real drama does not fit. Maybe it was for a tragedy. In that case, then it’s right on the money. You won’t see a more sloppily executed, horribly acted, painfully written, lazily directed, inept film this year. And what the hell did Christopher Walken walking in have anything to do with anything?
Nate’s Grade: F
Director Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino) needs a hit like a crack addict (my apologies to Chris Rock). His new movie is in the can but his temperamental star (Wynona Ryder in a juicy cameo) pulls out and demands all footage of her be left on the cutting room floor. The studio is close to dropping Taransky’s film deal, and the studio head just happens to be Taransky’s ex-wife (Catherine Keener).
Under this intense pressure Taransky retreats to mourn his failed potential, until an eccentric one-eyed computer engineer gives him the key to his solution. It seems that instead of interacting with actors and their egos and trailer demands, Taransky has found a new movie star — one completely made up of ones and zeroes named Simone. Taransky edits Simone into his film and soon after the nation is in love with the digital blonde. Simone mania sweeps the nation and soon her smiling image graces all sorts of memorabilia. The public can’t get enough of the mysterious Simone who never goes to public functions and only seems to speak or appear for Taransky.
Writer/director Andrew Niccol (Gattaca) has some fun with the premise but tries to have his cake and eat it too when it comes to his satire. S1mone starts out satirizing egotistical stars, then the Hollywood system, then the press, then the public as star worshipers. The movie is all over the map trying to have something witty to say about all these different topics but is too busy to settle down on any one for a while. The satire S1mone embodies feels deflated from all the work it’s trying to do.
Pacino has always been able to do comedy but seems wearier than ever. He indulges in his comic like over-the-top aggression he’s been doing since Dick Tracy. Keener plays another of her icy businesswomen roles although she thaws quite easily and quickly in the film.
There’s a rather funny subplot involving Pruitt Taylor Vince and Jason Schwartzman as tabloid reporters on the prowl of the elusive Simone that deserves much more attention than it gets. The bulk of the movie could have been these two entertaining characters.
When Taransky finds that his creation has become more than he can handle he tries to discredit her through a series of very funny public appearances and avante garde film choices. But then S1mone sadly goes back to its more mediocre roots. Taransky tries to get rid of Simone but it all horribly backfires.
As the film progresses you start to realize all the gaping holes that come up – like how can Taransky, a self-described computer illiterate, handle the most technical computer program of all time? How come no one would find out that Simone lacks a birth certificate, social security number or even tax records for her studio work? And why does the audience have to sit through the disgustingly cute daughter of Taransky and Keener, who just happens to be a computer whiz-kid, besides the fact she’ll have a late fourth quarter save of dad?
It’s not that S1mone is necessarily a bad film; it just has this missing piece to it when you watch it. Some scenes are funny, many drag, and the whole thing needed to be tighter and punchier. And to clear up any confusion, it is indeed an ACTRESS who plays Simone. Her name is Rachel Roberts.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Oliver Stone is a seamstress of visuals and visceral noise. Any Given Sunday is perfect as he delves into the professional world of football and how it becomes a dance of testosterone and fury. But after awhile all the audience feels is a pounding and a ringing in its ears.
The biggest stumbling block may actually be its focal point – there’s too much football! The games last as long as actual games and there are multiple games through out. Though Stone captures the essence nicely that these spandex-clad athletes are the gladiators of today playing in a ballet of chaos, he just throws too many jangled cuts, quick shots, and extreme angles flashing around to hyper-decibel soundtrack fodder. After a while the viewer becomes dizzied by the rush of noise and flash of lights buzzing around their precious skull. It’s enough to cause a concussion simply from watching.
]Most of the action in Any Given Sunday actually happens off the field with some meaty drama delivered by multiple players. Stone focuses in on the people behind the catches and blocks and how the game can control or transform their lives. Finally a drawn-out story that covers football with respect. Diaz and Pacino get into screaming matches for roughly most of the movie, but it’s exciting to see two great actors throw the acting medicine ball back and forth trying to out-duel the one before. The supporting characters all have stories suitable to the game and interesting enough to warrant attention. Jaime Foxx has a nonchalant magnetism that keeps the audience pulling for him even after he vomits for the third time on camera.
Stone lets the viewer into the game of football in a manner truthful yet exaggerated. But with all the whiz-bang he throws out in Any Given Sunday one can’t help but have wished for more constraint in the excess and more minutes for the drama in between.
Nate’s Grade: B-