The Irishman (2019)

Despite it earning an ecstatic reception that wasn’t afforded to similar late-career, swing-for-the-fences experiments like Silence or Hugo, I struggled to get excited for Martin Scorsese’s latest picture. Somewhere between the film’s 3.5-hour runtime and my disappointment in seeing my ancient Unkie Marty fall back on his tried & true Gangster Epic template, I couldn’t help but meet the prospect of watching The Irishman with an exhausted shrug. I doubt I ever would have caught up with the film at all if it weren’t for its prominence in the current Oscars Discourse, as I’ve been outright bored by Scorsese’s most recent mobster-violence retreads The Departed & The Wolf of Wall Street in the past. Even as someone who’d count GoodFellas among his favorite films of all time, I struggle to see the need to return to this thematic territory yet again, especially from a filmmaker who has so many other kinds of stories to tell (and, sadly, so little time left to tell them). It turns out that I was both a little right and a little wrong in my skepticism. The Irishman finds plenty more to say about the corruption & violence of organized crime that Scorsese has not addressed in previous efforts. Unfortunately, it allows that new material to be drowned out by an overwhelming flood of the same-old-same-old.

Scorsese mascot Robert De Niro stars as a low-level mafia hitman who becomes the unlikely, trusted bodyguard of infamous union organizer Jimmy Hoffa – played by the explosively charismatic Al Pacino. Pacino remains a hoot throughout the picture, which almost forgives the endless hours that monotonously detail the behind-the-scenes corruption & violence on the union-mafia border. Classic Scorsese collaborators like Joe Pesci & Harvey Keitel are flanked by giddy-to-be-there “youngsters” like Ray Romano & Bobby Cannavale in a GooderFellers redux that serves mostly as a history lesson to a new generation about why Hoffa was important in his time and how his flagrant corruption forever altered public opinion on labor unions in America. Each cast member holds their own in this decades-spanning epic, despite a distracting, much-written-about “de-aging” effect that lands the film near the realm of the “theme park” superhero movies Scorsese has been having fun flippantly dismissing in the press. It’s just that they’re instructed to joylessly go through the motions of reliving Marty’s past Mean Streets/GoodFellas/Casino triumphs, deliberately stripping the onscreen power & violence of any potential misinterpreted cool. No matter how many times Scorsese’s past pictures have been willfully misinterpreted as dorm-poster posturing for Badass Antiheroes, they’ve always had that same grim, hyper-critical eye for this realm of hyperviolent bullies. Those movies were just never this dull or exhausting. Scorsese is essentially repenting here for the sin of being entertaining.

In theory, I appreciate the idea of Scorsese self-examining what a life spent submerged in all this violence is meant to accomplish. In its best moments, The Irishman is exactly that – featuring an ancient De Niro, retired from his Murderer for Hire days, unable to find meaning in the remaining scraps of his life. He self-justifies his “youthful” crimes as a soldier who was just following orders, one with a duty to “protect” his family by remaining well-employed. After three grueling hours of matter-of-fact violence & corruption, the movie finally finds him discovering just how empty all that dutiful brutality truly was. Faced with the idleness of obsoletion & an inability to mend familial bonds that were never really there to begin with (especially with a silently disgusted adult daughter played by an expertly icy Anna Paquin), he actually considers what he’s done with his life for the first time, and is haunted by what he finds. That’s the core of the movie! That’s new, fresh territory worth dwelling on & exploring at length in miserable sequences of domestic drama. Unfortunately, these scenes that get at what the movie is About are only a small blip in a grander picture, a flood of familiar faces & imagery from Scorsese’s past work. I could have fallen in love with The Irishman if it started with that final half-hour and really dug into the themes that distinguish it as a unique work in Scorsese’s catalog. As is, they’re treated more as dashes of seasoning rather than a proper meal.

Ultimately, The Irishman is Fine. It’s also easy to complain about and not entirely worth the effort, so in that sense I suppose it’s a perfect Oscar Movie. Part of me wishes that Scorsese had gotten all these accolades for something more demanding & daring like Silence instead, but I can’t begrudge one of our greatest living cinephiles getting recognized for his contributions to the artform – no matter the context. The only real hurdle here for most audiences is going to be its massive runtime, as everything else goes down relatively smooth (including the confounding “de-aging” tech, thanks to the growing ubiquity of CGI fuckery on the big screen). I’ve got my own personal reservations about the choice in subject matter & thematic emphasis, but no real fervor for shouting them at what appears to be an otherwise appreciative crowd.

-Brandon Ledet

Trick ‘r Treat (2007)

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Over the last few years the 2007 horror anthology Trick ‘r Treat has joined the ranks of titles like Hocus Pocus & The Monster Squad as one of the films folks in my age range dutifully watch every Halloween season. Curious about the hype, I finally gave the film a shot & was pleasantly surprised to find a mostly goofy, sometimes bloody horror comedy that turns the spirit of my second-favorite holiday (no offense; Mardi Gras is still king) into lore of urban legend proportions. Although the film is far from perfect in terms of consistency & tone, its reverence for Halloween as a social & spiritual institution makes it a perfect candidate for the annual revisits I usually reserve for The Monster Squad & The Worst Witch. As soon as one of the first characters introduced is brutally murdered for offense of griping, “I hate Halloween,” and talking down their decorations a day early, the film establishes its mission statement: to protect the sanctity of dressing up in costumes & eating candy at all costs.

One of my favorite things that Trick ‘r Treat does is punishing the grumps & chumps that casually disparage the sacred holiday of All Hallows Eve. All of the following transgressions against the most unholiest of holidays are punished in the film: ignoring the “take one” signs on candy jars, not costuming, couples bickering instead of having fun, curmudgeons refusing to hand out candy to trick or treaters, horny dudes using the occasion as an excuse to hit on girls in skimpy costumes, snot-nosed punk kids mindlessly smashing jack o’ lanterns, bullies taking scare-pranks a step too far, and (as mentioned) taking down decorations a day early out of fatigue with the holiday. There’s probably more offenses that I can’t even recall. The film takes the sanctity of its temporal setting very seriously. It also puts a lot of stock into the power of urban legends, constructing new legends like The Halloween School Bus Massacre and turning old traditions like the classic “trick or treat” rhyme into a deadly ultimatum. Even the candy that holds the whole holiday together is given an almost religious significance, sometimes saving lives (when dispensed properly) and sometimes ending them (through poison & razor sharp shards brandished as weapons).

There’s only a minimum amount of genuine scares to be found in Trick ‘r Treat, mostly achieved through the confusion of real life ghouls & monsters mixing in with the drunken, costumed crowd. The film’s much more concerned with trope play & subverted expectations than scares. Victims turn out to be killers; killers turn out to be victims; when you think you’re getting one kind of famous monster the film delivers another, etc. Also surprising is the way Trick ‘r Treat interconnects its vignettes so that they’re all smoothly part of one large narrative, a rare ambition for an anthology horror. As for the individual players in the story, only actor Dylan Baker stands out in his performance, building nicely off his dark comedy work in past films like Happiness & Fido. I guess it’s also remarkable that Anna Paquin was put mostly to good use here, as she is always eager to remind the world that she is, objectively speaking, a terrible, godawful, not good at all actress. I was also relieved that besides brief use of Marilyn Manson’s cover of “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” the film avoids devolving into the late 90s-early 00s mall goth aesthetic that ruins films like American Mary for me. Instead, it builds most of its visual palette off of the inherent spookiness of the holiday (in details like blood moons & jack o lanterns) as well as the comic book framing that worked so well for classic anthology horrors like Creepshow & Tales from the Crypt in the past. What works most for Trick ‘r Treat, though, is the effortless reverence it shows for Halloween traditions & urban legends. That’s surely the aspect of the film that has opened it up to annual cinematic traditions, despite its tepid reception upon its initial straight-to-DVD release almost a decade ago.

-Brandon Ledet