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

Corrupt (1999)

Albert Pyun is one of those under-the-radar schlockteurs of the direct-to-VHS and early-VOD eras who churns out dozens & dozens of low-profile genre pics at an alarming rate without drawing too much attention to himself. Chances are that if you’ve seen an Albert Pyun film it wasn’t on purpose, but rather a statistical inevitability since he’s made so many sci-fi & crime film cheapies that you were bound to stumble into one of them eventually. For instance, I recently picked up a $1 used DVD copy of Pyun’s “urban” crime film Corrupt because it featured New Orleans rapper Silkk the Shocker on the cover, who I couldn’t recall ever having seen in a proper feature film before. I still haven’t. Part of Albert Pyun’s “Urban Trilogy” (alongside the Snoop Dogg vehicles Urban Menace & The Wrecking Crew), Corrupt is indeed Silkk the Shocker’s feature film debut as an actor, but only on a technicality. Shot in early-digital’s cheapo days (and trying to pass off the Czech Republic as New York City), this film is a very slight 69min that just barely holds itself together long enough to qualify as a movie. Silkk The Shocker also fades into the background for long stretches so that his costar, Ice-T, winds up claiming the most screentime (despite being the antagonist). This is an Ice-T movie that Silkk The Shocker just happens to pass through from time to time, but my purchase of the film under a mistaken pretense of what I was getting into is fairly typical to the quantity-over-quality M.O. for Pyun in general, so I was amused by the bait and switch.

While the title might signal that this is a thriller about crooked cops, it turns out Corrupt is the name of Ice-T’s character, not a descriptor of his persona. The controversial-rapper-turned-network-television-star appears here as the exact kind of criminal dirtbag he now pursues weekly as a fictional police detective on Law & Order: SVU. A drug kingpin with a hot temper, Corrupt threatens to implode an ongoing truce between NYC gangs because he cannot leave one particular brother-sister duo in his neighborhood alone – the brother (Silkk the Shocker) because he suspects him of stealing his drugs and the sister (Eva La Dare) because he wants to use his powerful street status to coerce her into bed. Silkk the Shocker occasionally runs across the screen to fire a gun in Ice-T’s general direction but most of Corrupt is concerned with that latter conflict with the sister. This is a shockingly dialogue-heavy picture about sexual coercion & rape in organized street crime, amounting to more of a melodrama than a crime thriller. A few disorienting smash-cut establishing-shot montages attempt to convince the audience that we’re watching a New York story, but most of the film is confined to single-location indoor scenes in the warehouses & diners of Bratislava, so that the film feels like a morbid stage play wherein a gangster abuses his power to manipulate a woman who does not want to sleep with him into bed. It’s a much more somber, wordy picture than you’d expect given its early-digi crime cheapie pedigree, which is the exact kind of expectation vs. reality dissonance that typifies Albert Pyun’s career.

Since the novelty of a Silkk the Shocker movie is minimalized along with the local rapper’s screentime, there are exactly two reasons why anyone should ever seek out Corrupt on purpose. The first is that its DVD (as well as the only version of the film uploaded to YouTube, appropriately) includes an amazingly disrespectful commentary track from Ice-T. Bored in the recording booth, Ice-T mercilessly riffs on the film in an MST3k tradition as if under the (understandable) assumption that no one would ever possibly be listening. He makes fun of the cheapness of Albert Pyun’s catalog in general, and jokes about how he only did a Pyun film because he’s been “blackballed from real movies” (this was before his TV career took off). He even makes fun of the audience for having purchased the DVD in the first place, much less played his commentary track, reasoning “You’re a loser with too much time on your hands.” (Fair point, no lies detected.) On the off chance that you’re actually interested in the production details for Corrupt, he does ease off these self-deprecating bon mots for insights like his complaint that “There was no place to shit” on set, so the crew would have to “hold it in the whole day.” It’s amazing. The second reason the film is potentially worth seeking out is that it features a scene in which Ice-T self-emulates with impossibly cheap CG-fire effects in order to dispose of his enemies (his mechanism for surviving the burns himself being too convoluted to be worth explaining). The image is so cheaply done that it approaches an art-film surreality that gives me hope there are other sublimely absurdist moments awaiting me the next time I accidentally stumble into an Albert Pyun film. It’s still a moment I’d recommend enhancing with Ice-T’s commentary track for peak effectiveness, though.

Since purchasing this film, one of my favorite modern critics (Justin Decloux of Film Trap and the Important Cinema Club podcast) has published an entire book of critical essays exploring the appeal of Albert Pyun as a filmmaker, titled Radioactive Dreams. Maybe after reading that collection I’ll be better equipped in purposefully seeking out Pyun films for pleasure instead of stumbling across them in confusion. One thing will not change though: Corrupt will still hold less value as a Silkk the Shocker vehicle (despite him being featured prominently on the poster) than it does as a showcase for Ice-T – as an actor as well as a raconteur (in his no-fucks-given commentary track) and a rapper (Ice-T songs play almost continually throughout the film with his vocals alarmingly high in the mix). I guess I’m going to have to seek out my Silkk the Shocker fix in his next film credit after Corrupt, Hot Boyz, which was apparently produced & directed by his brother Master P.

-Brandon Ledet

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

The common wisdom about Bugs Bunny is that he was modeled after Old Hollywood hunk Clark Gable; the only reason we even have the misconception that real-life rabbits love to eat carrots is because Bugs Bunny parodied Gable doing so in It Happened One Night and the image stuck. However, Gable’s slick, fast-talking, devilish pranksterism is just as much of a reflection of Studio Era sensibilities as they are a personal quirk. His rapid-fire dialogue delivery screams “Turner Classic Movies” more so than seeming specific to him, as if he were speaking a language called “Old Movie” that just happens to sound a lot like sped-up English. I’m saying this mostly because Bugs Bunny was the only thing I could think about while recently watching The Maltese Falcon for the first time, even though that’s a film that stars Humphrey Bogart, not Gable. The Maltese Falcon is a film with an absurdly prestigious pedigree: it’s the directorial debut of Studio Era legend John Huston; it’s cited as the first “major” film noir (as opposed to the smaller, independently produced noir pictures that preceded it); it’s one of the most defining examples of the MacGuffin as a literary device; etc. Still, all I could think about for the entire duration of the film was how funny Humphrey Bogart was in the lead role, and how much he reminded me of Bugs. Bogart is fluent in the same Old Movie language Clark Gable speaks (Bugsy Bunny also parodied him in the Casablanca poof Carrotblanca), and I feel as if I already owe the film a re-watch, not being able to keep up with each joke as fast as they were flying at me in Old Movie dialect.

As the film’s reputation of typifying a MacGuffin may suggest, the plot of The Maltese Falcon does not matter all that much. Bogart stars as a hard-drinking detective who gets sucked into a thieves’ quarrel by a dangerous dame (Mary Astor). At the expense of his partner, his freedom, and potentially his life, he aids this sultry stranger in their quest to obtain a highly valuable ornament ([whispering to my date while watching The Maltese Falcon when The Maltese Falcon first appears on the screen] “That’s the Maltese Falcon”) while avoiding the bullets of a small ring of thieves who also desperately desire to possess it. Casablanca’s Sydney Greenstreet, The Killing’s Elisha Cook Jr, and everyone’s favorite pervert Peter Lorre round out the main cast as that trio of gun-toting thieves, each taking turns backing Bogart into a corner so he can promptly talk his way out of it. It’s Bogart lashing out in that fight-or-flight position that makes The Maltese Falcon such a consistently fun watch. Whether talking to the dame, the cops, or the crooks, Bogart’s hardboiled detective delivers long strings of uninterrupted sass at a machine gun’s pace. Bogart knows he’s being lied to & bullied from all directions, but he finds the danger & mystery of that set-up to be a gas, taking great delight in calling everyone out in their deceits as his hypersensitive bullshit detector goes haywire. When Sydney Greenstreet’s would-be criminal mastermind repeatedly tells Bogart, “You are a character,” out of a gamesman’s delight, it the most honest sentiment shared by any of the film’s various players. This is a film built entirely on Bogart being a comically oversized character, in the colloquial sense of the word.

I don’t want to oversell The Maltese Falcon as a laugh-a-second yuck ‘em up comedy. Based on a very serious crime novel, the second adaption after a 1930s original (Hollywood remake culture has gone too far!), the film’s surface-level details deliver everything you’d want to see in a classic noir. Our “hero” is a hard-drinking adulterer who inserts himself into deadly criminals’ schemes for amusement & personal profit. He dons the classic suits & fedoras combo that inspire those wretched “Men used to dress classy” MRA memes. He’s framed with the intense lighting & drastic angles of classic noir while simply rolling a cigarette or pouring himself a drink, a handsome personification of gruff masculinity. This is directly contrasted with the fey, sexually devious energy of Peter Lorre, playing a character explicitly described as homosexual in the source material. Bogart gets into some S&M play with Lorre (who is introduced practically fellating the handle of his cane), dominating him with some Kung Fu action and barking “When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it.” There’s a serious, even tragic romanticism to this Alpha Male masculinity, typified by his fawning secretary’s plea “You always think you know what you’re doing, but you’re too slick for your own good.” Unfortunately, that macho posturing was something that trickled down into the zeitgeist just as much as Bogart’s “Ain’t I a stinker?” pranksterism, influencing descendants as disparate as the wise-cracking meatheads of French New Wave staples like Breathless and 1980s action spectacles like Commando. There’s a danger in making your troubled antiheroes out to be such slick charmers; they end up being so lovable they’re practically children’s-entertainment cartoon bunnies.

At this point, you probably don’t need to hear from me or any amateur film blogger that The Maltese Falcon is well-made & worth seeing. Catching it for the first time on the big screen (thanks to The Prytania’s Classic Movies series) mostly just confirmed for me what I had already assumed from its name recognition & its heavy rotation in corners like TCM: it’s a handsome, well-crafted noir with a talented cast & a distinct Old Hollywood charm. The only thing I didn’t know to expect was that it would be so damn funny. Even its score often reinforces the humor of the dialogue, with chipper flights of orchestral whims incongruously accompanying a murderous plot about greedy, gun-toting thieves. It’s practically the same accompaniment you’d expect to hear in a Merrie Melodies cartoon while Bugs Bunny cracks wise in an Old Movie cadence to talk his way out of getting shot by Elmer Fudd.

-Brandon Ledet

Lonely Hearts Killers vs. Blasphemous Hollywood Phonies

When opera-composer-turned-one-time-filmmaker Leonard Kastle dramatized the serial murder crime spree of Raymond Fernandez & Martha Beck, he deliberately avoided Hollywood glitz & glamor. The Honeymoon Killers was Kastle’s anti-Bonnie & Clyde project, a low-fi genre picture meant to capture the full grime & absurdity of his subjects’ tabloid-ready crimes without glorification. He explained “I didn’t want to show beautiful shots of beautiful people.” Before Kastle’s movie and since, there have been roughly a dozen crime thrillers about so-called “Lonely Hearts Killers,” murderers & thieves who lured their victims through romantic personal ads in the newspapers. Fernandez & Beck in particular have only received the movie treatment in two subsequent productions, however: a 90s Mexican crime drama titled Deep Crimson and 2006’s Hollywood-produced Lonely Hearts. It’s in that latter title that we got a glimpse of exactly the kind of movie Kastle didn’t want to make, a phony game of 1940s dress-up packed with “beautiful shots of beautiful people.” The Honeymoon Killers deliberately set out to be the anti-Bonnie & Clyde; Lonely Heats carelessly stumbled into being the anti-Honeymoon Killers, bringing the whole phony Hollywood enterprise full circle.

The first glaring Hollywoodization of true-life grime in Lonely Heats is the casting of Raymond Fernandez & Martha Beck. A large part of public fascination over the killers’ tabloid-documented trial was how much objectively better-looking Fernandez was than his lover/partner in crime. Martha Beck was a plain, ordinary woman who had intensely latched onto a very handsome (and eventually violent) man. Her caked-on makeup, over-plucked eyebrows, and low-fashion attire afford her the appearance of a John Waters character as she’s played by Shirley Stoler in The Honeymoon Killers. In Lonely Hearts, she’s played by Selma Hayek, one of the most exquisitely beautiful movie stars around. Jared Leto co-stars as Fernandez, equally miscast in the way his forever-young baby face struggles to convey the rugged, old-fashioned masculinity the role requires. When they attempt to age up Leto with a bald cap (in scenes where Raymond isn’t wearing his signature toupee) it plays as an unintentional joke. Leto looks as if he’s guest-hosting SNL, which I doubt was the intended effect in this drama about women & children-murdering grifters. In the casting alone, Lonely Heats undoes everything Kastle envisioned for The Honeymoon Killers, but it does so by having no particular vision at all. It’s likely no one had Kastle’s film in mind during the making of Lonely Heats; they were just naturally blasphemous to his ideals by deferring to Hollywood’s default mode of filming beautiful people playing dress-up.

After the casting of its leads, the second most baffling (and unintentionally blasphemous) decision Lonely Heats makes is in its choice of POV. Whereas Kastle’s film morally challenges the audience by making Fernandez & Beck the protagonists, Lonely Heats frames the story around the (presumably fictional) cops who are tracking them down. James Gandolfini provides convenient exposition for the film as a police force old-timer who burdens the proceedings with verbose noir narration so overly-familiar it borders on parody. John Travolta contrasts him as a loose-cannon partner with a troubled past & an apparent death wish, distracting from Fernandez & Beck’s exploits by wasting screentime on his own past romantic tragedy & his current troubled relationship (with a too-good-for-this-shit Laura Dern). Through this police procedural device, the movie allows itself to play very fast & very loose with the truth of the case that inspired its narrative, but then drop in flatly-stated facts about Martha Beck’s childhood sexual assault that Kastle didn’t dare touch in his own version of the story. The details of the individual crimes are familiarly paralleled in each film: bodies stuffed in clothing trunks, women struck in the skull with hammers, Fernandez & Beck posing as brother & sister to lessen suspicion in their grifts. Lonely Heats just distorts those details through a phony Hollywood POV and often tempers their impact by depicting cops uncovering victims after-the-fact. Where The Honeymoon Killers will show a victim atonally singing “America the Beautiful” at top volume in a bathtub for a campy comedic effect, Lonely Hearts will counter that deliberately un-sexy image with a perfectly posed naked female body found in a bathtub filled with her own blood, looking more like a fashion shoot than a suicide. Where Honeymoon Killers will show Fernandez & Beck teaming up to drown a child in a basement sink, Lonely Heats will only show cops discovering evidence of that crime in horror, long after the event. The details are largely the same (they both depict the same true-life crime spree after all), but the methodologies are philosophically opposed – if not only because Lonely Hearts seems to have no specific philosophy at all.

Of course, there’s an entertainment value built into phony Hollywood glamor. For all of Lonely Heart’s efforts to beautiful Fernandez & Beck’s crimes and shift the moral ambiguity of audience empathy by framing their story through the cops hunting them down, the film still does not skimp on sex or bloodshed, something it treats with the same casual decorative ease as its 1940s big band music & dress-up costuming. Lonely Hearts even occasionally achieves some of The Honeymoon Killers’s off-putting absurdist camp in its more lurid details, such as in a scene where a blood-spattered, bald cap wearing Leto masturbates for Hayek’s amusement. As always, Hayek herself is a joy to watch and is clearly having fun with the material. The “beautiful shots of beautiful people” ethos Kastle detested is difficult to despise too vehemently when it involves Hayek chewing scenery in 1940s femme fatale couture. The pleasures of Lonely Hearts are mild & unexceptional, though, requiring a willingness on the audience’s behalf to settle for an outrageous tabloid saga being reduced to a generic crime picture & an old-fashioned game of Hollywood dress-up. If you want the full scope of Fernandez & Beck’s violence & absurdity, watch The Honeymoon Killers. If you want beautiful shots of beautiful people playing cops & robbers in a low-rent version of old-fashioned Hollywood glamor, Lonely Hearts is your destined-for-cable-broadcasts alternative.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, the romantic crime thriller The Honeymoon Killers, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s examination of Martin Scorsese’s involvement with the film.

-Brandon Ledet

The Bat (1926)

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One scene into The Bat I felt an intense swell of confusion & disbelief as if I had just won the movie lottery. The film’s titular antagonist appeared in the black & white haze of degraded celluloid with the general look of the familiar, but in a completely foreign shape. It was like running into a dear friend’s close relative & mistaking them for your pal. Batman as we know him may not have made it to the cinema until his incarnation in 1940s serial shorts, but his misshapen ancestor The Bat appeared onscreen two decades earlier, predating even the first Batman comic. I’m not sure what I was expecting when I sat down to watch this silent era crime mystery, but it surely wasn’t the prototype of a movie franchise hero I grew up loving dearly.

There are some major differences between The Bat & The Batman that I should probably get out of the way early. The Batman flirts with criminality in his vigilantism, but The Bat is an outright criminal. In fact, his background as a jewel thief & a bank robber makes him much more akin to a masculine version of Catwoman in Batman’s clothing. Speaking of the clothing, the two characters’ costumes also deffer in a few significant ways. While The Batman is a smoothed out, leather-clad ideal of what a humanoid bat might look like, The Bat is much more realistic to his animal kingdom inspiration. He has goofy, gigantic ears like a horror show version of Mickey Mouse. He’s also much furrier, with a terrifyingly accurate mask the film smartly waits to reveal until the third act. He also carries around his weapons/tools in an old doctor’s bag instead of the utility belt rocked by the Caped Crusader.

Whatever. This is still a masked man in bat costume, complete with black cape & gloves, who runs around the rooftops of an Art Deco metropolis. He climbs the sides of buildings by rope like a far less campy Adam West. He casts a goddamn bat signal across an interior wall using a car’s headlamp. He spends mot of his runtime skulking around an old, city-side mansion that looks like gothic castle & contains secret rooms that house illegal acts. Why take my word for it, though? Comic book artist Bob Kane cites the film’s 1930s talkie remake The Bat Whispers (which shares a director with this version’s Roland West) as  a direct inspiration for the creation & design of Batman as a character. So, there you go. The Bat is in itself an adaptation of a Broadway stage play, so maybe Batman’s roots go back just a little further, but his existence in cinema undeniably starts here, an impressive forever ago.

As for The Bat‘s achievements outside its eventual massive influence on modern pop culture, the film works just fine as a tiny murder mystery & heist thriller. For the stretches where The Bat doesn’t appear onscreen, the film’s plot isn’t particularly flashy or experimental in any recognizable way. The only thing that stands out as a sore spot is the comic relief of a ditzy maid who continuously misguesses the identity of The Bat. “Maybe he’s The Bat!” “Maybe he’s The Bat!” “That Jap butler gives me the willies […] Maybe he’s The Bat!” I’m not sure I’m allowed to go any further into the details here, since ht film opens with the stern talking-to, “Can you keep a secret? Don’t reveal the identity of ‘The Bat’. Future audiences will fully enjoy this mystery play if left to find out for themselves.” Yes, I can keep a secret, especially since the film’s stage play mystery structure isn’t the most significant thing at work anyway.

The Bat is a must-see work of seminal art. It’s not some antiquated bore with an antagonist that was plucked from lowly ranks for a higher purpose. The film directly influenced the creation of Batman, but it also achieves its own, exquisite Art Deco horror aesthetic that recalls the immense wonders of the Hollywood classic The Black Cat, except with more of a creature feature lean. Its stunts are impressively dangerous-looking. Its actors are dwarfed by its beautifully immense sets. Shadows creeping up city walls & perfectly lit gunsmoke shooting down a stairwell make for some unforgettable imagery/cinematic history. It’s no wonder, really, that the film has been remade twice (the second was in 1959 with horror legend Vincent Price) or that its influence reached into comic books & beyond. It’s a gorgeous & violent work of early horror/crime cinema that caught me off-guard with its power & improtance as soon as the first scene.

-Brandon Ledet