The Irishman (2019)

The Irishman

It is what it is. In 1975 mob hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) and his boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and their wives are on an east-west roadtrip, their ultimate destination Detroit for the wedding of Russell’s niece. An elderly Sheeran tells the story of their association as a meet-cute when he was driving a meat truck in the 1950s and his rise through the ranks, his appointment to a Teamster position under Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) the union supremo with deep Mafia ties. It becomes apparent that there is an ulterior motive to the journey and their role in America’s evolution particularly with regard to the Kennedy family is traced against a series of hits Sheeran carries out that reverberate through US history… What kind of man makes a call like that. Not so much Goodfellas as Oldfellas, a ruminative journey through midcentury America via the prism of a violent hitman who allegedly befriended and later murdered infamous Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa. This is toned-down Scorsese, with muted colours to match the readjusted and very mature framing of Mafia doings in terms of the impact it has on family, chiefly Sheeran’s sensitive daughter Peggy (played by Anna Paquin as an adult) whose mostly silent presence functions as the story’s moral centre:  her horror of Bufalino is a constant reprimand. Steven (Schindler’s List, Gangs of New York) Zaillian’s adaptation of Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses is not for the fainthearted:  its overlength is sustained mainly by performance with a powerhouse set of principals (plus Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale et al) battling against a lot of unmemorable and somewhat repetitive dialogue (but when it’s good, it’s great), under-dramatised setpieces and a fatally bloated midsection (as in life, so in narrative), much of which is spent in courtrooms. Every time there’s a lull in the action someone needs Frank to off the source of their discontent and sometimes this is handled with straightforward exposition, sometimes in a montage of Frank disposing gun after gun off a bridge. That’s the story punctuation. Mostly however the issue is with DeNiro’s dull and wearying voiceover. This is not the funny jive kick of Ray Liotta in the aforementioned 1990 classic, it’s a man utterly comfortable in his killer’s skin who doesn’t defend himself because it’s who he is and he is not given to introspection, a flaw in the anchoring perspective. If we’re seeing it, we don’t need to be told too. The de-ageing effect is jarring because we don’t see the DeNiro of Mean Streets, rather a jowly preternaturally middle-aged man who shuffles in an old man’s gait. While Pesci is calm and chillingly content in his own position as a capo, it’s Pacino (in his first collaboration with Scorsese) who lifts the mood and fills the air with punchy, positive ions, giving the movie a much-needed burst of energy. But even he seems to be circling the wagons around his own self-satisfied persona as the same story/work-life issues repeatedly arise. It’s a big movie about nasty men who (perhaps) played a huge role in the shaping of their country and the hierarchies of cultures and ethnicities are regularly invoked in a tale which may or may not be true. There are some potentially amusing gatherings of men in black suits at family events. But funny they ain’t.  It’s sad perhaps that Scorsese didn’t make this for cinema and after three weeks on limited release it is fated for eternity on a streaming service:  a sign of the times and perhaps the swansong of a major filmmaker at the end of the 2010s. The nail in the coffin of an era? After this we might be asking not just who killed Jimmy Hoffa but who killed the mob movie. Late Scorsese, in more ways than one. They can whack the President, they can whack the president of the union

Mermaids (1990)

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Weird things happen. It’s 1963. Fifteen-year-old Charlotte Flax (Winona Ryder) is tired of her wacky mom (Cher) moving their family any time she feels it is necessary. When they move to a small Massachusetts town Mrs. Flax begins dating kindly shopkeeper Lou (Bob Hoskins) whose wife has run away. Charlotte and her 9-year-old swimming enthusiast sister, Kate (Christina Ricci), hope that they can finally settle down. But when Charlotte’s attraction to an older man Joe (Michael Schoeffling) the convent’s caretaker gets in the way, the family must learn to accept each other for who they truly are just as the President is assassinated and the nation mourns…  June Roberts’ adaptation of Patty Dann’s book is adept and appropriate, giving Winona Ryder one of her best roles and she plays it beautifully. Funny, warm and engaging, this works on so many levels but it doesn’t dodge the effect of maternal neglect – which is also a case of overpowering personality:  Charlotte’s fantasy fugue to New Haven is a sharp reminder that mother-daughter relationships are a minefield and when the daughter starts imitating the mother’s promiscuous behaviour (in between attempts to live like a Catholic saint) Mom doesn’t like it and there’s collateral damage. The girls are not products of marriages – just a teen romance and a one-night stand with an Olympic athlete (maybe) and when things get tough, Mom always gets going.  It’s Charlotte who wants to settle down. There’s a wonderful running joke about Mom’s inability to prepare any food other than hors d’oeuvres or sandwiches served with star-shaped cookie cutters. With great dialogue, lovely scene-setting and on the button performances (Cher giving one of her best), there’s nothing in this well-judged comedy drama you can’t like even though it unexpectedly swerves directions, more than once.  The characters are still sympathetic despite being curiously narcissistic:  that’s good writing. Cher tops it off with The Shoop Shoop Song! Directed by Richard Benjamin.

In the Line of Fire (1993)

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Frank Horrigan is the ageing Secret Service man being taunted by phonecalls from someone who knows way too much about him – including that he was on the detail for JFK in Dallas. Turns out the guy is a former CIA assassin who couldn’t get acclimatised to life after Nam. (I know!) The threat to the current incumbent who’s on the campaign trail is overwhelming and Frank wants to get with the present detail despite being on bad terms with the whole team. He’s accompanied by newbie Al D’Andrea (Dylan McDermott) but gets to know a woman secret agent, Lilly Raines, (‘window dressing’ as he puts it), the fabulous Rene Russo who’s probably been cast for her striking resemblance to Jackie Kennedy. The brilliance of this cat-and-mouse thriller is that it’s constructed between the poles of guilt and nostalgia – Frank’s guilt at not being able to save JFK, plus what might have been – and the desire not to let history get repeated. There’s also the joy of Clint playing versions of his previous law enforcing self with Dirty Harry references in abundance, verbal and visual. The byplay with Russo is extremely witty and their first (foiled) attempt to go to bed is great slapstick – look at all the weapons come off!  John Malkovich as the disguise-happy Mitch Leary is a great choice for the loopy assassin whose hero is Sirhan Sirhan and we know that this must end in a murder attempt replaying of RFK’s death at a venue similar to the Ambassador Hotel, this time in the midwest. This is a witty, fast-moving, clever, inventive, knowing, brutal and brilliantly written entertainment by Jeff Maguire (working from a story by producer Jeff Apple), superbly directed by Wolfgang Petersen.  The score by Ennio Morricone really works with the other jazz  soundtrack licks including Clint himself tinkling the ivories in all those hotel bars. With John Heard in a supporting role, Fred Dalton Thompson as White House Chief of Staff and Buddy Van Horn looking after the stunts, we are in great hands here as all those ideas about the Warren Commission, lone assassins and your ordinary everyday conspiracy theories are unpicked while an unstoppable romance between Clint and John unfolds in deadly fashion. Fantastic.

JFK (1991)

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11/22/63. No matter where you stand on whodunnit, this adaptation of N’Oleans DA Jim Garrison and Jim Marrs’s book hits so many targets so precisely you have to just wonder in awe at Oliver Stone’s masterful cinematic achievement. The legal-conspiracy thriller reached new – and mature, true – heights with this exploration of the facts, theories, rumours and lurid stories surrounding the many oversights and strange findings of the Warren Commission. The expedient assassination of the most charismatic American President and the many malcontents who might have ordered it are explored in a series of brilliant character portraits in Stone and Zachary Sklar’s screenplay and performed by a game, talented cast. Garrison is played by Kevin Costner but there are so many great supporting actors – Joe Pesci and his wig are unforgettable as David Ferrie, Walter Matthau is great as Senator Long,  Gary Oldman is the patsy, Lee Harvey Oswald, Kevin Bacon impresses as Willie O’Keeffe. And more. So many more! I don’t know if Stone ever discussed this with Woody Harrelson, whose hitman dad was rumoured to be the shooter on the grassy knoll, and I don’t know if the second fatal shot was shockingly administered in error (maybe) by one of the agents on the car (that’s the most probable scenario, given the ammo burns, IMHO), and frankly it always seemed logical that LBJ ordered the hit, but  what do I know?! This packs a visceral punch. And it was 53 years ago today.  What a revolting anniversary to have to mark. Politics, American-style, with all those mysterious lone gunmen and Manchurian candidates. Stunning, shocking, what film is for.