In 1973, Martin Scorsese gave us Mean Streets, the tale of a fledgeling gangster contemplating the rungs that could lead him to the top of the NYC mafia. The film takes the point of view of the young man looking forward, and it boasts a supernaturally brilliant performance by Robert De Niro, then 30-years-old.
Scorsese’s latest, The Irishman, looks at a gangster’s rise through those same ranks, this time with the eyes of an old man looking back on his life. In another performance that will remind you of his prowess, a 76-year-old De Niro stars.
The 3 ½ hour running time opens patiently enough as Rodrigo
Prieto’s camera winds its way through the halls of a nursing home, establishing
a pattern. We will be meandering likewise through the life and memories of
Frank Sheeran (De Niro), house painter.
“When I was young,” says Sheeran, “I thought house painters
Sheeran’s telling us his tale in much the way the actual Frank
Sheeran told writer Charles Brandt (author of Scorsese’s source material) what
may or may not have been the truth about his history as a mob hitman (it’s not
paint he’s splashing across walls) and his relationship with Jimmy Hoffa (Al
Teamed with acclaimed screenwriter Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List, Moneyball, Gangs of New York), Scorsese’s sly delivery suggests that he’s interested in what might have happened to Hoffa, sure, but he’s more intrigued by memory, regret and revisionism in the cold glare of time. The result is sometimes surprisingly funny, with a wistful, lived-in humor that more than suits the film’s greying perspective.
De Niro’s longtime partnership with Scorsese makes it even easier to view Sheeran as an extension of the director himself, taking stock of his legacy in film.
The decades-spanning narrative could have easily made for a riveting Netflix series instead of one three and a half hour feature, but as the first act blends into the second, the film has you. The grip is subtle but it is more than firm, the epic storytelling and nuanced performances combining for an absorbing experience that takes your mind off the clock.
And what a joy to watch three powerhouses in the ring together.
Joe Pesci, playing against type as Russell Bufalino, the quiet mafia boss who mentors Sheeran, is as good as he’s ever been. Pacino fills Hoffa with an electric mix of dangerous bravado, unapologetic corruption and dogged sincerity. And De Niro, like that aging fighter reclaiming his title, gives The Irishman its deep, introspective soul.
And while the trio of legends is commanding the screen, Scorsese uses a small supporting role to remind us he can still speak softly and hit hard.
As Peggy Sheeran, the elder daughter who has watched her father evolve into the man he is, Anna Paquin is piercing, and almost entirely silent. When Peggy finally speaks, she asks her father a direct question that carries the weight of a lifetime behind it, and serves as the perfect conduit to drive the film to its aching conclusion.
Away from the chatter of Scorsese’s views on superhero movies or the proper role of Netflix, The Irishman stands as a testament to cinematic storytelling, and to how much power four old warhorses can still harness.
Todd Phillips, director of the Hangover trilogy among other comedies, recently told Vanity Fair that he had to get out of comedy because woke culture made it impossible to be funny.
That sounds like a butthurt white guy nobody thinks is
funny. Doesn’t that actually make him the perfect person to reimagine Joker?
Directing and co-writing with Scott Silver (The Fighter), Phillips offers an origin story that sees mental illness, childhood trauma, adult alienation and societal disregard as the ingredients that form a singular villain—a man who cannot come into his own until he embraces his inner sinister clown.
It’s a dangerous idea and a dangerous film, but that doesn’t make it a bad movie. In many respects—though not all—it is a great movie. This is partly thanks to an ambitious screenplay, Lawrence Sher’s intense cinematography, solid directorial instincts with some beautifully staged violence and constant (indeed, fanboy-esque) nods to Scorsese.
But let’s be honest, it’s mainly because Joaquin Phoenix is a god among actors. His scenes of transformation, his scenes alone, his mesmerizing command of physicality, and in particular his unerringly unnerving chemistry with other actors are haunting.
Phoenix is Arthur Fleck, (or Afleck, if you were giving points for Batman references) wannabe standup comic and put upon outcast in 1981 Gotham City. The garbage strike has everyone testy. Rich, entitled Thomas Wayne (Bruce’s dad) isn’t helping matters with his bid for the mayor’s office and his disdain for those who are struggling.
Since Phillips genuflects to both Taxi Driver and King of Comedy, it is appropriate that Robert DeNiro, with some snazzy new teeth, participates as Murray Franklin, the late night legend that Arthur and his mother (Frances Conroy) watch every night.
More than once, Phillips does not trust his audience to stay with the direction he’s taken, and it’s unfortunate. These “look what I’m doing here” scenes drag the film, but as long as you never take your eyes off Phoenix (and who could?), you’re not likely to notice.
A pivotal moment where Arthur crashes a posh screening of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times is Phillips’s less-than-subtle reminder that it has always been the clowns in this world who reflect society’s reality back to us. It’s a wise move to make this an alienated-to-the-point-of-violence white guy who takes his frustrations out not on the powerless, but on those with power, thus becoming a kind of hero himself.
Of course, the inclusion of Chaplin could also be read as a direct admission that Joker is a comment on our modern times. Superhero universe? Fanatical throngs blindly following a sociopath? Checks out.
But similar to Phillips’s approach with War Dogs three years ago, an uneven tone lessens the intended impact. Alongside the straightforward Scorsese homages are left turns into Oliver Stone territory a la Natural Born Killers. That black comedic satire is a tough nut regardless, even more so if comes in fits and starts.
Credit Phillips for a damn the torpedoes vision that’s damn near palpable, but it’s impossible to imagine this all meshing as well as it does without Phoenix. His presence is completely transfixing, always convincing you that he is here to fulfill this legendary character’s destiny.
Remember when we thought Nicholson could never be topped? Then Ledger did it. And now Phoenix makes this the darkest, most in-the-moment Joker we’ve seen.
And it’s chilling.
So, Phillips succeeded in making an anti-comedy and anti-comic book movie because bro culture totally rules and comedy is dead and that’s not a privileged cop out at all. But then, it is possible to separate art and the artist.
Let me just admit something right now. I’m the guy who thought Robert DeNiro had some funny moments as the Dirty Grandpa.
Now DeNiro is The Comedian and..anybody seen Grandpa?
One of the curious aspects of the film is that even though it’s more of a character study than an outright comedy, that character is a legendary comic who’s not really that funny.
DeNiro stars as Jackie Burke, an insult comedian who hit it big back in the day with a smash TV sitcom. Nowadays, he chides his manager (Edie Falco) for the meager gigs while resenting fans who just want to hear him repeat his old TV catch phrase. An encounter with an aggressive heckler goes viral, and suddenly Jackie is hot again..while serving 30 days for assault.
He meets Harmony (Leslie Mann) while fulfilling community service hours, and director Taylor Hackford dutifully kicks off a series of situations in search of greater cohesion.
As Jackie and Harmony go to comedy clubs, weddings, and dinner, Jackie is always cajoled into doing a quick routine that isn’t nearly as impressive and everyone tells him it is. By the time Jackie goes viral again with a retirement home performance of a parody song about “making poopie,” the antics are more embarrassing than amusing.
An old school comic facing the truth that “being funny isn’t enough anymore” could have been fertile ground for a more layered, meaningful character. The Comedian isn’t interested. Veteran standup comics are among the film’s writers, comedy consultants, and cameo stars, but the script never gives Hackford the ammo to dig any more than surface deep.
What Hackford does have is a talented cast (including Danny DeVito, Harvey Keitel, Patti LuPone and Cloris Leachman), and he keeps all the actors engaged enough to deliver terrific performances, regardless of screen time. That’s about the best reason to see The Comedian, a film that seems content to put off getting its act together in favor of just wandering around backstage.
Early in Hands of Stone, legendary boxing trainer Ray Arcel (Robert DeNiro) is schooling future legendary boxer Roberto Duran (Edgar Ramirez) on technique versus strategy. The film tells us there are vital differences, then shows us these differences aren’t just in the ring.
Like a fighter too caught up in the moment to remember the plan, the film boasts solid fundamentals but employs a tired strategy while exploring more openings than it can safely land.
Duran was born in Panama, rising to stardom against a backdrop of poverty and political unrest in his homeland. So of course his story is told from the old white guy’s point of view. Trainers are a natural element in boxing movies, true, but anchoring this one with Arcel is just bad strategy. I mean, Mickey was great at telling us that women weaken legs, but he never altered the long game: telling Rocky’s story.
Writer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz’s respect for Duran is evident, and sincere enough to not shy away from some of the unflattering aspects of Duran’s past. Equal confidence that his story could be told on its own terms would have been welcome. Ramirez rises above it with a terrific performance, capturing the early hunger and eventual crash of a gifted champion who often seemed plagued by contradictions.
DeNiro brings a nicely underplayed grace to the wise narrator’s role while Ana de Armas is dynamic as Duran’s wife Felicidad, showing her recent one-note role in War Dogs was a complete waste of both time and talent.
The fine performances do much to keep the film grounded as it struggles to find a consistent voice. Jakubowicz wants us to understand the social, political and familial forces that nagged Duran, but also lament how great boxing used to be and appreciate Duran’s rivalry with Sugar Ray Leonard (nicely done Usher Raymond).
It’s a crowded narrative, even before Arcel’s own family dramas and mob connections come to call.
Hands of Stone shows admirable heart and strong technique, but is often derailed by scattershot focus and a questionable strategy. Call it a split decision.
In honor of our next Fright Club Live – where we unspool the unhinged French horror show Sheitan (French for Satan) – we decided to pick through all the performers who’ve played the dark lord onscreen. George Burns to Dave Grohl, we considered them all. Here, though, is our list of the best of the best.
5. Jack Nicholson (The Witches of Eastwick– 1987)
Old Jack really breathed life into the idea of wretched excess in this one, coming across equally as frightening and charming. Appropriate. He seems to be playing off of his own persona, but given the comedic nature of the effort, and the absurdity that this slovenly old cuss could seduce three stunning, intelligent women (Susan Sarandon, Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer) – well, it’s a charm Nicholson seemed to come by naturally, so why not exploit it here?
4. Peter Stormare (Constantine – 2005)
There are two reasons to remember this film – Tilda Swinton and Peter Stormare – and luckily they have one epic scene together. But Stormare manages to even outdo the effortlessly glorious Swinton – androgynous perfection as Gabriel – and that’s something to crow about. He’s been preparing to play the dark lord ever since he pushed Steve Buscemi into that wood chipper in Fargo. Once he got the shot, he was sinister, funny, frightening…and eventually undone by Keanu Reeves, which was almost enough reason to leave him off the list, but not quite.
3. Viggo Mortensen (The Prophecy – 1995)
There is no question this film belongs to Christopher Walken – as do all films in which he graces the screen. His natural weirdness and uncanny comic timing make the film more memorable than it deserves to be, but when it comes to sinister, Viggo Mortensen cuts quite a figure as Lucifer. Unseemly, gorgeous and evil, he seethes through his few scenes and leaves the celluloid scorched.
2. Robert DeNiro (Angel Heart – 1987)
De Niro’s well manicured and articulate Louis Cyphre perfectly balances Mickey Rourke’s handsome slob, and both fit beautifully into this sultry version of 1955. It’s really a beautifully made film, courtesy of Alan Parker, who adapted William Hjortsberg’s novel Fallen Angel and directed the film. Deceptively bloody, unusually classy, effortlessly creepy, Angel Heart stays under your skin. Maybe it’s the casual evil, the lurid atmosphere. Maybe it’s De Niro’s understated menace, with those long nails and that hardboiled egg.
1. Tim Curry (Legend – 1985)
Best Satan Ever. That voice, the sultry way he drawls out every syllable, the sweltering inappropriateness of his seduction, the look. Wow. This image clearly influenced both South Park‘s vision, as well as the Dave Grohl part in Tenacious D’s Pick of Destiny. But Curry pulls it off like no one else. Tim Curry is the world’s greatest sweet transvestite, the world’s greatest terrifying clown, and the world’s greatest Satan. Too bad the character is trapped in such a crap film.
The Nineties boasted more good horror than you might remember. It was a time of big budget, Oscar nominated studio films like Misery and early genre work from filmmakers who would go on to become the best in the business, like Fincher’s Seven, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, Tarantino and Rodriguez’s From Dusk Til Dawn, and Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder. Foreign films made a splash – Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive, and a wave of Japanese films that would have a powerful influence in the next decade of American horror. Here we pick the best of the decade.
5. Cape Fear (1991)
In 1991, Martin Scorsese toyed with the horror genre with a remake of the ’62 Gregory Peck/Robert Mitchum power struggle between a steamy psychopath and an uptight lawyer. Scorsese mines the very ripe concept for more outright horror, recasting Robert DeNiro – still on top of his game and garnering an Oscar nomination – as Max Cady, a deeply disturbed criminal who should not be underestimated. Nick Nolte takes on the Peck role, but it’s Juliette Lewis (also Oscar nominated) as Nolte and Jessica Lange’s teenage daughter who amps up the unseemly tension.
Scorsese and his cast know how to wring anxiety from an audience and their film brims with a sultry tension that keeps everything on edge. It’s masterful storytelling with a throwback feel, the kind of film that finds you yelling at the screen, not because characters are doing anything stupid, but because you know better than they do just how terrifying Max Cady is. Still, the evil that he can do manages to stagger every single time.
4. Scream (1996)
In its time, Scream resurrected a basically dying genre, using clever meta-analysis and black humor. What you have is a traditional high school slasher – someone dons a likeness of Edvard Munch’s most famous painting and plants a butcher knife in a local teen, leading to red herrings, mystery, bloodletting and whatnot. But director Wes Craven’s on the inside looking out and he wants you to know it.
What makes Scream stand apart is the way it critiques horror clichés as it employs them, subverting expectation just when we most rely on it. We spent the next five years or more watching talented TV teens and sitcom stars make the big screen leap to slashers, mostly with weak results, but Scream stands the test of time. It could be the wryly clever writing or the solid performances, but I think it’s the joyous fondness for a genre and its fans that keeps this one fresh.
3. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Blair Witch may not date especially well, but it scared the hell out of a lot of people back in the day. This is the kind of forest adventure that I assume happens all the time: you go in, but no matter how you try to get out – follow a stream, use a map, follow the stars – you just keep crossing the same goddamn log.
One of several truly genius ideas behind Blair Witch is that filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez made the audience believe that the film they were watching was nothing more than the unearthed footage left behind by three disappeared young people. Between that and the wise use of online marketing (then in its infancy) buoyed this minimalistic, naturalistic home movie about three bickering buddies who venture into the Maryland woods to document the urban legend of The Blair Witch. Twig dolls, late night noises, jumpy cameras, unknown actors and not much else blended into an honestly frightening flick that played upon nightmares I have almost every night.
2. Audition, 1999
Audition tells the story of a widower convinced by his TV producer friend to hold mock television auditions as a way of finding a suitable new mate. He is repaid for his deception.
Nearly unwatchable and yet too compelling to turn away from, Audition is a remarkable piece of genre filmmaking from horror master Takashi Miike. The slow moving picture builds anticipation, then dread, then full-on horror. Midway through, Miike punctuates the film with one of the most effective startles in modern horror, and then picks up the pace, building grisly momentum toward a perversely uncomfortable climax. By the time Audition hits its ghastly conclusion, Miike and his exquisitely terrifying antagonist (Eihi Shina) have wrung the audience dry. She will not be the ideal stepmother.
Keep an eye on that burlap sack.
1. The Silence of the Lambs
It’s to director Jonathan Demme’s credit that Silence made that leap from lurid exploitation to art. His masterful composition of muted colors and tense but understated score, his visual focus on the characters rather than their actions, and his subtle but powerful use of camera elevate this story above its exploitative trappings. Of course, the performances didn’t hurt.
Hannibal Lecter ranks as one of cinema’s greatest and scariest villains, and that accomplishment owes everything to Anthony Hopkins’s performance. It’s his eerie calm, his measured speaking, his superior grin that give Lecter power. Everything about his performance reminds the viewer that this man is smarter than you and he’ll use that for dangerous ends. But it’s Ted Levine who goes underappreciated. Levine’s Buffalo Bill makes such a great counterpoint to Hopkins’s Lecter. He’s all animal – big, lumbering, capable of explosive violence – where Lecter’s all intellect. Buffalo Bill’s a curiously sexual being, where Lecter is all but asexual.
Demme makes sure it’s Lecter that gets under our skin, though, in the way he creates a parallel between Lecter and Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster). It’s Clarice we’re all meant to identify with, and yet Demme suggests that she and Lecter share some similarities, which means that maybe we share some, too.
Usually, a director shoots a villain from below, making him look larger and more menacing. The victim is usually shot from above, which makes them seem smaller, less powerful, more vulnerable, and cuter. When Clarice and Lecter are talking in the prison, they’re shot at the same angle, eliminating that power struggle. They’re shot as equals.
More than that, during their conversations, Demme captures each character’s reflection in the partition glass as the other speaks, once again making the visual impression that these two are equals, have similarities, are in some ways alike. No one is like Buffalo Bill. He’s incomprehensible. Unacceptable. But Demme generates something akin to sympathy in his depiction of Hannibal in relation to Clarice, and given how terrifying he is, that’s equally unsettling.