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The Irishman (2019)

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+

Isle of Dogs (2018)

The quirky imagination of Wes Anderson and his stylized, symmetrical, painterly approach to filmmaking has always seemed like a natural fit for the world of animation. Stop-motion has a wonderfully tactile and woebegone appreciation that furthermore seems like a natural fit, and 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox is one of Anderson’s best and most enjoyable films. If it were not for the considerable time it takes to make animated films, I’d be happy if Anderson stayed in this realm. Isle of Dogs is about a future where dogs are blamed for an infectious disease and as a result are banned and quarantined to a garbage island off the coast of Japan. One little boy dares to venture to this island to find his beloved missing dog. From there, he’s escorted by a pack of dogs, led by Chief (voiced by Bryan Cranston), across dangerous tracks of the island while avoiding the boy’s adopted family, the mayor of Nagasaki. This is a whimsical, beguiling, detail-rich world to absorb, but it also has splashes of unexpected darkness and violence to jolt (though the dark turns are consistently nullified). It’s a highly entertaining movie although the characters and story are rather thin. The different dogs are kept as stock roles, and the main boy, Atari, is pretty much a cipher for dog owners. However, the film can tap into an elemental emotional response when discussing the relationship between man and dog. If you’re a dog person, it’s hard not to feel a twinge of emotions when a dog is given a loving owner and sense of family. There is one element of the movie that feels notably off, and that’s the fact that the dogs speak English and the local Japanese characters speak their native tongue but without the aid of subtitles. it doesn’t exactly feel like Anderson is doing this as a source of humor, but I can’t figure out a good alternative reason for it. I’m sure Cranston’s distinctive growl would have sounded just as good speaking Japanese. Regardless, Isle of Dogs is a mid-pack Wes Anderson fantasia of inventive imagination and well worth getting lost within.

Nate’s Grade: B

National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007)

National Treasure: Book of Secrets is like a big dumb puppy that just wants love. It does a trick and thinks it deserves some form of recognition, and me with my cold heart just wants to shrug and move on with my day. How can I be so unmoved when there’s even a cartoon before the movie? For any prospective moviegoers, if you enjoyed the 2004 National Treasure, where I remind all that the U.S. Declaration of Independence had a secret treasure map on its other side, then chances are good you’ll enjoy Book of Secrets. That’s because they’re pretty much the same movie.

Ben Gates (Nicolas Cage) and his father (Jon Voight) are basking in their newfound respect from proving that their crackpot treasure schemes were in fact real. Their respectability is turned upside down, however, when Mitch Wilkinson (Ed Harris, with a dollop of a Southern drawl) has evidence that great-great-grandaddy Gates was responsible for planning President Lincoln’s assassination. He has a piece of John Wilkes Booth’s diary and a list of conspirators is jotted down, with great-great granddaddy Gates listed right there. The diary is authenticated and the Gates are devastated but ultimately unconvinced. They know their Civil War era ancestor would never betray his country and was unknowingly decoding a secret that could lead the Confederacy to an ancient golden temple, something that could help turn the tide of the war. This ancestor ripped pages out of the diary and threw them in a fire to protect the welfare of his country and was then shot by a secret Confederate soldier. In order to clear his ancestor’s good name, Ben Gates will have to find this hidden treasure, which is precisely what Mitch has wanted from the start.

Gates re-teams with his pals from their first successful adventure, computer whiz Riley (Justin Bartha) and Abigail (Diane Kruger), who has thrown Gates out of their home due to his single-minded focus. Dating a treasure hunter is a certain path to a rocky relationship, ladies. Riley, who even wrote a book about his treasure exploits but still can’t get recognized, is game but Abigail has to be tricked into help. The group finally figures out that the only way to verify the temple’s hidden location is by getting their eyes on the mysterious President’s Book of Secrets, which only presidents can read. This means that Ben has no choice but to get the president (Bruce Greenwood) alone and beg to see a book not meant for outside eyes.

Book of Secrets is a little less dopey than the first preposterous National Treasure adventure, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t chock full of stupidity. According to these movies, apparently damn near everything in this country is built over an Indian burial ground or a giant cavern of treasure. I advise all readers to try digging in their backyards because it appears that the odds are in their favor (also: beware of your real estate company moving the tombstones but not the bodies). The clues are a little less mind-boggling, so instead of a single brick that’s been undisturbed for 200 years we get matching furniture for the Queen of England and the President of the United States. One doozey of stupidity is that one clue requires people to douse a large rock formation with water in hopes that they hit exactly the right spot and have an invisible eagle make its appearance. The plot is still structured on the clue-leads-to-other-clue template, which can be exhausting after a while because there’s never any indication of progress until the end arrives.

The subplot about kidnapping the president is ridiculous in the fact that, while already being dumb, it adds needless conflict. When Gates “”kidnaps” Mr. President he does so through a secret tunnel under George Washington’s Mt. Vernon estate. The passage closes behind them and cuts off the frantic Secret Servicemen. It is here where Gates makes his plea for the titular Book of Secrets, which the president confirms but cannot confirm publicly (well, it is a secret book of secrets). Instead of sensibly saying to his men, “Sorry guys, you know how old these places are, we got trapped, but Mr. Gates here helped get me out,” the movie tries to claim that the next course of action is that Gates will be on the run for kidnapping the leader of the free world. Huh? What makes this sequence stand out is how easily explainable it could all pass, and yet Book of Secrets figures the movie is better served by a contrived complication to add more outside pressure on Gates and his treasure hunting crew.

Of course all of the silliness and off-the-wall shenanigans would be acceptable if the film delivered some exciting action sequences that pinned you to your chair, but just like the first National Treasure, this movie is pretty much devoid of a well-thought out action sequence. Returning director Jon Turtletaub has no real visual flair and lets the material simply lay there on screen without much effort to jazz it up. Many action sequences are brief and never really flirt with complications. Usually, the script will propose a simple sequence of events like, say, “Good Guys on Run from Bad Guys” and then Turtletaub will show us exactly that, no better no worse. There’s nary a scene that actually utilizes its globetrotting destination to its advantage; most of the action is not geographic based, which means that it could happen anywhere because it doesn’t take advantage of the specifics of exotic locales. That is inexcusable to me, a big fan of good action sequences. A lengthy trip to an underground golden temple tries the patience as it rambles on and unabashedly apes the Indiana Jones series. Book of Secrets has a halfway decent car chase through the streets of London and that ends up being the highlight of the film. The trouble is that there’s more than an hour left at that point.

Book of Secrets is a slightly better film than the original. It jumps around in time through the lineage of the Gates clan and gives a better sense of the personal stakes for Ben and his father. Having their long-dead heroic family members linked to a dastardly assassination is good motivation for action, even if that action is ultimately finding an underground temple of gold (how A+B = C I will never know). The production design is skillful and the various European locations bring some sense of grander excitement that, sadly, will never be fully capitalized upon. The characters are still pretty shallow and one-note, but it seems like it’s less annoying this time because there’s less setup on who these characters are, which is, in short, shallow and one-note.

Cage is on autopilot and plays up his goofy mannerisms and William Shatner-esque line readings. This is a paycheck job for Cage and nothing more. Just because the first flick made tons of money is a lark to him and not an indication that he should try something different. He’s giving the people what they seemingly want, which is a wacky Nicolas Cage hamming it up with his patented version of kooky acting. Kruger is the exact copy of her character from the previous National Treasure, meaning she’s the bickering blonde counterweight to the conspiracy theorists on the journey. I suppose she plays a damsel in distress adequately. Voight gets more screen time this go-around thanks to a plump subplot involving the team seeking out the assistance of his ex-wife, played by Oscar-winning actress Helen Mirren. Yes, that Helen Mirren. Harris is given a do-nothing part as the villain and then the movie can’t even follow through on that. Everyone seems to have fun with all the nuttiness and goofy stunts, so I can’t fault them too much for faking it in a big Hollywood blockbuster.

I understand the appeal of these movies, which have found a sizeable audience willing to lap up a Cliff Notes of History along with their popcorn thrills. I imagine the fans of the original will show up in droves and make sure that National Treasure 3: The Mystery of Franklin’s Syphilis is fast-tracked for a future holiday release. I don’t mean to be a killjoy (my mother really enjoys these films) but I cannot get behind the National Treasure movement when the movies are riddled with rampant stupidity, contrived situations, convoluted conspiracies, one-note characters, and inept action sequences that never amount to much of anything beyond teetering homage to better adventure films. Book of Secrets is essentially the exact same movie reheated to take the chill off. Replace Sean Bean for Ed Harris as rival treasure hunter, add another female character, and there you have it, a mostly undisturbed formula that proved profitable in 2004.

Nate’s Grade: C

Red Dragon (2002)

The following is a conversation overheard between two studio producers:

“Person #1: So this Hannibal movie made like a ton of green. What else can we do to squeeze out some more money?”

Person #2: “Hey, do you remember a movie called Manhunter based on the first Lector novel?”

Person #1: Nope.

Person #2: That’s fine because nobody else does.

It’’s official folks: Hannibal Lector, America’’s favorite cannibal, is now more comical than scary. See the element that 1991’’s Silence of the Lambs carried with it was a stealthily gripping sense of psychological horror. It hung with you in every closed breath you would take, surrounding you and blanketing your mind. I mean, there aren’t many serial killer movies that win a slew of Oscars. And while the follow-up, last year’’s Hannibal, gleefully bathed in excess at least Ridley Scott’’s sequel was so over-the-top with its Baroque horror that it was entertaining. So what’’s Red Dragon, the latest Lector flick based on Thomas Harris’ first novel like? Well it’’s like the bastard child of Lambs and Hannibal after a drunken one-night-stand neither would be proud of in the pale light of morning.

In an extended prologue we see the capture of the good doctor with a good appetite, Hannibal Lector (Anthony Hopkins, completing his trilogy of the character). FBI Agent Will Graham (Edward Norton) seeks his advice on a profile of a serial killer, not knowing that Lector more than fits the bill. A violent struggle ensues that leaves Graham with a long scar across his abdomen and Lector locked away for nine consecutive life sentences.

Turns out there’’s another madman on the loose. The “Tooth Fairy,” dubbed by tabloid journalist Freddy Lounds (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), has butchered two families in their homes and inserted shards of broken mirror into their eyes. The FBI coaxes Graham out of retirement to try and track down the “Tooth Fairy.” But it seems in order to make any significant ground he must seek help from an old advisor –– Hannibal Lector.

The crux of the film follows Graham’’s attempts to figure out the identity of the “Tooth Fairy,” which we learn fairly fast is pretty boy Ralph Fiennes. Seems Fiennes has a cleft palette and years of physical and sexual abuse to toil over. He desires to transform into a mythical Chinese creature known as the Red Dragon. But wait, the lonely Fiennes is befriended by a lovely blind woman (Emily Watson) who identifies having people look differently at her. Can her affections melt the cold heart of a cold-blooded killer? Well, if they did there’d be no other half of this movie.

What Red Dragon feels like is more of a checklist of what we expect to see in a Hannibal movie than anything of creative nourishment. It’’s like a slimmer version of Lambs plot. Once again there’’s an FBI agent who recruits Hannibal for advice on tracking down a serial killer. Once again there’’s a disturbed killer trying to transform himself. Once again Hannibal Lector scares the crap out of anyone at will. Check, check, and check. Creative stagnation? Double check. The most disappointing aspect is the rudimentary feel this whole exercise has. Even though Red Dragon is a prequel it still seems like it’’s begging to meet our expectations of two earlier films.

The first stab at the Red Dragon novel was in 1986 by director Michael Mann (Ali, The Insider) with the thriller Manhunter. William Peterson (before his work at CSI) was a more brooding Graham, Tom Noonan was a spookier “Tooth Fairy,” and the tension was stacked better. There were no comparative expectations.

Norton is the finest actor of his generation but has certain trouble breathing life into Graham. The character is far more straight-laced than what we’’ve been told is an expert at delving into the minds of killers. Graham’s relationship with Lector doesn’’t have any of the complexity, or interest, that Jodie Foster’’s Clarice Starling had. He can even be very flat-footed in his detective work for a specialist. He stares at the home videos of the two slain families for about an hour wondering what the connection is while we in the audience shout it out to him. Let’s go to the videotape Ed!

Anthony Hopkins returns as the devil in the flesh and seems to have another grand old time. Lector worked in Lambs because he was caged up, like a wild animal not meant for four glass walls. You never knew what would happen. He’d get in your head and he would know what to do with your gray matter — not that he didn’’t have a culinary degree in that department with Hannibal. With Red Dragon, Hannibal is just window dressing to another serial killer. He’’s a supporting character in a story that he has nothing to do with. He’’s reduced to comic relief with his sudden attacks of chattering teeth and velvety voice. The amazing supporting cast of actors all do well, especially the beaming Watson who will shine in anything you put her in. Just try.

Ultimately the story of Red Dragon is far from flawless and meanders for quite a while. It would have been a marginally competent movie had it not been trying to replicate Silence of the Lambs so damn hard. So, is this the last you’ll see of Hannibal Lector? No as long as clinging cash registers can still be heard. Cue evil laughter.

Nate’s Grade: C+

U-571 (2000)

Think of every major movie where the action centered on a submarine — now add every cliche and a dash of boredom and U-571 is your dish.

The movie centers around the launch to retrieve the German coding during the later stages of WWII and the brave men and women who risked their lives and honor out of duty for their fellow man. This sounds like a great premise for a movie but why must it be fictionalized and steamed for mobile suspense when I’m sure there are many heart-pounding stories of courage that are true. You’d also think with every major cliche of the action world that U-571 would at least be able to stand to its feet for excitement but it’s quite easy to doze off on this underwater snoozer. The characters are all one-in-the-same that I had to identify them by haircut and height in order to know who was who at all times. And when some of them died it took me awhile to process which one it was.

U-571 is full of every old and new Hollywood convention itself that adds nothing to the story or enjoyment as a whole. The up and coming leader is advised he doesn’t “have the stuff to let a man go in order to save others” so let’s try and guess what position he will ultimately be put into. Why is the only black man in the movie a jive-talking chef and why does he jump at the controls and knows what to do INSTANTLY trouble’s afoot. I guess a nuclear submarine and engineering physics is so closely related to spices and stews. Of course everyone’s favorite bad guys (say it with me now together “Germans are always evil”) are in the middle and slaughter a whole group of sea-faring survivors just for the hell of it. Why do they do this? Because they’re Germans, and they have to be more evil so they kill innocent people.

U-571 isn’t a terrible movie, it does hold some credible acting and set designs to bring the look and feel of the 1940s to breathing life. The effects are well done but are sporadically used. Most of the tale takes place about trying to get past one Destroyer – just one. Two hours of this? U-571 may be a prelude to the summer, and if it is it’s going to be a long long movie season.

Nate’s Grade: C

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