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

The Absurdist Joys of the Villainous Pun Name

I have a running list of absurdly idiotic movie gimmicks that delight me to no end: horror films about internet-dwelling computer ghosts; plot-summarizing rap songs that play over end credits; music video dream sequences, etc. This week I may have discovered a new one: the not-so-secret villain who gives themselves away with an obviously evil pun name. Naming fictional characters is difficult business. It takes incredible skill & patience to find the right name that both says something about the character without being too blatant and feels natural on the tongue. This week I’ve been watching movies that don’t at all burden themselves with either concern, instead using their villains’ names as plain, upfront statements about where they stand in the world and how you should feel about them. It’s a tactic that’s far more often employed in the heightened realities of pro wrestling, drag, and comic books – one that sticks out like a sore thumb when it’s deployed in cinema, hilariously so.

The first of these villainous pun names to jump out at me was from the 1987 supernatural noir Angel Heart. The film joins the ranks of New Orleans-set erotic thrillers like The Big Easy, Zandalee, and Cat People ’82 in depicting our fine city as a sweaty pile of saxophones, street steam, horniness, gumbo, and Voodoo. The plot is, on the surface, a fairly standard noir riff where a young, strapping Micky Rourke ventures to investigate a missing person’s case while getting tangled up with various dangerous dames. Everything changes when a corny sex scene between Rourke & Lisa Bonet (a beautiful combination, considering the times) turns into a nightmare vision of Hell and the movie takes a supernatural turn. Anyone paying attention to the character names should see that directional shift coming from a mile away, however. Not only is Rourke’s professional sleuth named Harold Angel, but the man who hires him to investigate the crime (in “a special appearance” from Robert De Niro) is named Louis Cyphre. Turns out that long-nailed, slick haired trickster Louis Cyphre has a pure-Evil, supernatural role to play in Angel’s downfall. Who would have guessed?

The second villainous pun name I stumbled across was a much more recent, less nostalgically minded-title: Wes Craven’s 2005 airplane thriller Red Eye. A tight, gimmick-heavy thriller from the War on Terror era of Bush’s presidency, the film features Rachel McAdams being held hostage by Cillian Murphy on a late-night flight and subsequently being pressured into participating in a terrorist attack. Red Eye has a Final Destination feel to it, except with Terrorism feeling like the inescapable inevitability instead of Death. That set-up allows for over-the-top skirmishes with flight attendants, missile launches, and assassination attempts to feel at home with the overall tone, but the movie also has a stray concern with gender politics that lands far outside that thematic orbit. Murphy’s abduction & coercion of McAdams begins as extremely gendered flirtation, then erupts into domestic violence exchanges where he explains he has the upper hand because his “male-driven logic” trumps her “female-driven emotion.” That turn in the story is much more jarring than Murphy’s reveal as the villain, but the gendered violence of the film is less surprising when you consider his character name for a half-second: Jack Rippner.

After meeting Louis Cyphre & Jack Rippner by chance, I decided to revisit the most shameless villainous pun name I could recall. It’s an honor held by none other than schlock king Ed Wood Jr., who had the vision & the fortitude to name a character Dr. Acula in 1958’s Night of the Ghouls. Officially unreleased until the 1980s, cobbled together from footage pilfered form Orgy of the Dead & The Sinister Urge, and somewhat posed as a direct sequel to Bride of the Monster (at least in Tor Johnson’s resurrection of the character Lobo), Night of the Ghouls is a total mess even by Wood’s “standards”. It’s a charming mess, though, especially in sequences where Dr. Acula fleeces marks by staging fake seances in his spooky mansion for easy cash. Everything about Acula is a mystery. Actor Kenne Duncan is not at all vampiric in the role, not even vaguely. The character was obviously written for Bela Lugosi before his death, but why wasn’t it given to Criswell instead, who introduces the film while rising of a casket, then continues to operate outside the narrative? If Acula is a total fraud whose seances are staged for grifting, why would have burdened himself with such an obviously suspicious, villainous stage name? Was the character intended as an homage to Lugosi’s very similar conman in the 1940 horror comedy You’ll Find Out? I’m not sure Wood would have answers to these questions even if he were still alive, which I suppose is part of the fun.

Jack Rippner, Dr. Acula, and Louis Cyphre have better company in more well-respected films – characters like Hannibal Lecter, Cruella de Ville, and any number of James Bond or Harry Potter villains you can name. Honestly, though, I find them even more delightful as sore-thumb intruders outside of contexts like comic books or children’s literature that would excuse their over-the-top nomenclatures. Now that my eyes are open to the trope, I fully expect to notice more villainous pun names at the movies. At the very least, I hope to run across a Justin Sane or a B. Zilbub before my time on Earth is through and I fully expect to fall in love with the films that dare to exploit that gimmick. It’s consistently delightful & comfortably at home with this genre film territory.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 31: GoodFellas (1990)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where GoodFellas (1990) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 157 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “Not all good movies are about Good People. I also like movies about Bad People who have a sense of humor. […] Henry Hill, the hero of GoodFellas, is not a good fella, but he has the ability to be honest with us about why he enjoyed being bad. He is not a hypocrite.”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): “Most films, even great ones, evaporate like mist once you’ve returned to the real world; they leave memories behind, but their reality fades fairly quickly. Not this film, which shows America’s finest filmmaker at the peak of his form. No finer film has ever been made about organized crime – not even The Godfather, although the two works are not really comparable.” -from his 1990 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

“What Scorsese does above all else is share his enthusiasm for the material. The film has the headlong momentum of a storyteller who knows he has a good one to share. Scorsese’s camera caresses these guys, pays attention to the shines on their shoes and the cut of their clothes. And when they’re planning the famous Lufthansa robbery, he has them whispering together in a tight three-shot that has their heads leaning low and close with the thrill of their own audacity. You can see how much fun it is for them to steal.” -from his 2002 review for his Great Movies series

Whenever pressed for my Favorite Movie of All Time, my answer tends to flip flop between Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights & Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas. Neither answer is especially bold or indicative of my general tastes. They’re both massively popular titles with wide appeal. Still, they’re the two films I revisit most frequently and the two I think best exemplify everything cinema can be: terrifying, erotic, hilarious, gorgeous, musical, etc. Arriving years later than GoodFellas, Boogie Nights certainly pulled a lot of influence from Scorsese’s gangster magnum opus: absurdly complex tracking shots, sensual immersions in pop music indulgence, a narrative structure that posits the 1970s as a glorious time of hedonistic excess & the 1980s as dark times of cocaine-fueled downfall, etc. That more or less makes GoodFellas the birthplace of what I love most about modern cinema and, thus, leaves me no choice but to shamelessly gush without criticism whenever prompted to discuss it.

Scorsese reportedly wasn’t interested in making another organized crime picture after the early effort Mean Streets already covered what he wanted to say on the subject. Reading the Nicholas Pileggi book Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family on the set of The Color of Money completely turned him around on the idea. The book’s sweeping, decades-spanning look at how the Italian mafia operated on both a generational/cultural level and on a day-to-day operations basis inspired him to want to tell a mafia story that plays “like a two and a half hour trailer.” The result is a lyrical sense of pacing that both moves from the 50s to the 80s with the patience of a flood and freezes still for intimate moments of violence & tension when the situation calls for it. I could easily see that same “two and a half hour trailer” Scorsese quote being turned around on the film as an insult, but for me it’s pure pop cinema bliss. GoodFellas evolves the French New Wave influences that excited New Hollywood auteurs in the early 70s into an entirely new, powerful beast. It sets in motion a near-undetectable shift in cinematic language that feels Citizen Kane-esque in the way it wasn’t immediately appreciated, but informed everything that followed in its wake.

Although GoodFellas follows dozens of characters over the span of four decades, it’s solidly anchored by its narrator & POV character Henry Hill, modeled after a real life mobster by the same name. The story begins with adult Hill (played by a career-high Ray Liotta) opening the trunk of a car to stab & shoot a wriggling victim inside who had been annoying him & his two closest cohorts (played by Robert De Niro & Joe Pesci) with their pathetic cries for help. As this motley crew mercilessly ends their victim’s life, Liotta intones, “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” Scorsese does almost too good of a job of communicating exactly why someone would want to join the violent world of organized crime. The film follows Hill from his powerless youth as the son of Irish & Italian immigrants to his godlike power as an adult gangster with two mistresses and an endless network of untouchable killers who have his back. Scorsese also gets across the pitfalls of burning that fast & bright, as well the ugliness of a life in crime in general: the murders, the drug addiction, the paranoia of police scrutiny, the casual racism, etc. Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy may attempt a more ambitious summation of mafia culture in its endless scope & runtime, but the way GoodFellas boils that same subject down to its most essential pleasures & tragedies in just over two hours is far more miraculous in both its efficiency & its moment to moment effect.

Scorsese declared that he wanted to model GoodFellas‘s overall style after the New Wave classic Jules and Jim, especially in its narration, quick cuts, freeze frames, and wide variety in setting. He was deliberately attempting to overwhelm his audience with the intoxicating allure & apocalyptic downfalls of a life in crime. This effect can be achieved with the odd power of the tracking shot from NYC streets to the front row table at the Copacabana nightclub. It can be built through a thirty minute exercise in Hitchcock-flavored tension as narcotics officers close in on Henry Hill’s drug-running empire, It can also burst out quickly in a pop music montage that reveals an extensive line of dead characters disposed of without ceremony. From the giallo purples & reds of the nightclub lighting to Liotta’s constant narration commanding the pace with meticulous control, GoodFellas feels like Scorsese’s attempt to throw everything he knows about cinema at the screen in every single shot. Much like its well-balanced soundtrack (featuring artists like The Ronettes, The Shangri-Las, Cream, and The Rolling Stones), GoodFellas feels like a Greatest Hits collection of cinematic techniques, perfectly curated so the album only feels more charming on every revisit instead of making you long for the sources it borrowed from.

Besides its eclectic, immaculate approach to craft behind the camera, GoodFellas also boasts some of cinema’s all-time best dramatic performances. As the centerpiece, Liotta obviously commands a lot of attention, especially with his maniacal laugh & coldly brutish readings of lines like, “Everybody takes a beating sometimes,” and “Fuck you, pay me.” Although she isn’t afforded nearly as much time in the spotlight, Lorraine Bracco’s role as Henry’s wife, Karen Hill, is occasionally allowed to overpower his perspective with her own narration. She does a great job of getting across the allure of being married to a mobster (“I gotta tell the truth, it turned me on,”) as well as directly vocalizing Scorsese’s intent to leave the audience feeling dizzy or drunk. Mobsters with names like Frankie No-Nose & Jimmy Two-Times round out the rest of the cast, but only De Niro’s mentor-turned-bully & Pesci’s loose cannon hothead threaten to steal the show. Pesci, in particular, lends credence to Scorsese’s claim that in-character ad-libs guided rewrites of the script. Whether delivering lines like “Fuck ’em! Fuck ’em in the ear,” or lightly ribbing his mother (played by Scorsese’s real life mother Catherine Scorsese) over her mediocre painting skills, Pesci feels like he fully embodies the character. In fact, the entire cast feels like they were born to play their respective roles, which might help explain why (most of) their careers have felt relatively lackluster since.

Although it certainly traffics in populist cinema waters, GoodFellas has a natural divisiveness to it, possibly in part because of its omnipresent narration & deliberately overwhelming pace. The film feels now as if its legacy as an all-time classic is solidified, but there were multiple walkouts during its test screenings & the only Oscar it won from its six (mostly technical) nominations was for Joe Pesci’s performance. I do not have the critical ability to step outside of myself and consider its flaws. My admiration for it only grows in every revisit and I love getting swept up in its crushing flood of pure cinema bliss. The only film I could maybe claim better delivers on its exact formula is Boogie Nights, but that’s a point I flip flop on as often as I revisit either work individually. GoodFellas might just be the best the medium has to offer.

Roger’s Rating (4/4, 100%)

Brandon’s Rating (5/5, 100%)

Next Lesson: The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979)

-Brandon Ledet

Dirty Grandpa (2016)

It’s so rare for Robert De Niro to put in a watchable performance nowadays that it’s tempting to overpraise his smaller roles in movies where he’s not even the main attraction, just because he put forth a notable effort. Bit parts in films like Stardust & Silver Linings Playbook keep the He’s Still Got It dream alive while most top bill De Niro performances urge us to abandon all hope, to accept that whatever talent or drive the actor held onto as a young man is long dead. Dirty Grandpa might be a game-changer in that respect (and in that one aspect only). Dirty Grandpa is a broad, crass comedy about overgrown man-children that makes no real attempt to distinguish itself from every other broad, crass comedy about overgrown man-children that have filled out theater marquees since the rise of the Judd Apatow era. Robert De Niro’s performance within that framework as the titular grimy geezer is worthy of distinguishing praise, however. Once you get past the fact that his role is a series of grotesque sexual come-ons, irreverent gross-outs, expletive-filled karaoke performances, and feverish torrents of masturbation, it becomes apparent that it might be the actor’s bravest, most fully committed work in decades. It’s almost Freddy Got Fingered levels of audience-trolling absurdity that he decided to apply that latent sense of passionate craft to such an aggressively inane, grotesque line of humor.

Zac Efron is a buttoned up lawyer on the verge of marrying an uptight woman he very obviously has no feelings for. Robert De Niro is his ex-military grandfather and a recent widower. At first he comes off as a kind of racist, homophobic asshole, but really no better or worse than any other old white man his age. As the film develops, he reveals that his outward crassness is a deliberate ploy to shake his too-refined grandson out of making the romantic mistake of a lifetime in marrying a woman he doesn’t love. It’s a typical bro comedy plot, playing almost like a The Hangover spin-off (especially in its demonization of a shrewish fiancée whose only enjoyment in life is in ruining boys-will-be-boys type fun). Dirty Grandpa manages to make the effort worthwhile, though. Centering its conflicts around the grandpa’s immediate quest to fuck a young college student (that’s right; this grandpa fucks) the day after his wife’s funeral, the movie seems entirely self-aware about the frivolity of the story it’s telling. Its climactic heart to heart has nothing to do with teaching the grandson a life lesson, but instead includes the line, “The greatest gift a guy can give his grandpa is unprotected sex with a college girl before he dies.” The road trip mishaps on the journey to organize that gift at a Daytona Beach Spring Break celebration also cut down on the movie’s ultra-macho posturing, especially once the brocation is interrupted by the likes of a crazed drug dealer (Jason Mantzoukas), a sarcastic gay man (UnReal‘s Jeffery Bowyer-Chapman), and a no-fucks-given anarchic monster (Aubrey Plaza).

I was initially very weary of the bro humor Dirty Grandpa gleefully rolled around in like a pig in shit. Verbal references to “retards,” “buttfuckers,” and prison rape cool the comedy a great deal in the initial goings, but it’s easy to warm up to the film once you realize De Niro’s elderly gremlin is supposed to be an unlikable monster. I wound up admiring how gross Dirty Grandpa‘s gross-out humor dared to be and by the time the ancient bastard was rapping along to Ice Cube’s “Today Was a Good Day” at a karaoke club I was fully on board with the cheap thrills this movie and this actor were willing to debase themselves to provide. Maybe De Niro is on some level too much of a talent to be employed for a gag where his adult grandson walks in on him fully nude & furiously masturbating (or “doing a #3,” in the movie’s parlance), but that kind of decision-making is more up to the actor & his agent than it is to me as an audience. I’m just happy to see the old man dive head first into non-vanilla, memorable material. Watching him take on a monstrous role as a wrinkled hellraiser with an unrelenting boner in a comedy whose title I consistently confuse with the throwaway Johnny Knoxville trifle Bad Grandpa might not have been my first choice in where I’d want to see his late-career trajectory go, but I’d be a liar if I said it wasn’t a pleasure to behold. A dirty, shameful pleasure.

-Brandon Ledet

Stardust (2007)

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I should stop kidding myself with the idea that I have to read a book before watching its movie adaptation. I was on a bit of a Neil Gaiman kick around the time that Stardust was released in 2007 so I had convinced myself that I was going to rush to read the novel as quickly as possible so I could experience the film fully informed. Almost a decade later I finally watched it thanks to a Netflix recommendation algorithm & hadn’t even yet even touched a copy of Gaiman’s book. There was a little fatigue on my end that came with reading a ton of Gaiman works in a row due to a perceived sameness in his narrative structures. More specifically, every Neil Gaiman novel read to me like a down-the-rabbit-hole adventure where a citizen of our realm gets swept up in the complications of a magical one. Although I tired of watching this formula play itself out repeatedly in his novels, it’s one that lends itself very well to cinematic adaptation & when I finally got around to giving Stardust a chance I ended up holding it just as high regard as previous Gaiman projects Coraline & MirrorMask, two movies I love very much.

The first thing most people will likely mention about Stardust is that it is the movie where Robert De Niro plays a crossdressing pirate on a flying ship. This detail is totally significant, as it might be the one role De Niro’s landed in the past 15 years that isn’t a total waste of time & talent (outside maybe his David O. Russell collaborations), but his fey pirate captain is just one of many players in a wide cast of winning eccentrics. Stardust is the kind of movie where every character is likable whether they’re literal star-crossed lovers or murderous goons with coal-black hearts. Boardwalk Empire/Daredevil‘s Charlie Cox stars as our bumbling, babyfaced hero who falls down the requisite rabbit hole to get the story kicked off. In order to retrieve a falling start to prove his love & devotion to a spoiled brat who couldn’t care less about him, our protagonist crosses the wall that serves as a thin barrier between our realm & its magical counterpart. He’s shocked to discover that his fallen star is, in fact, a beautiful woman (played by Claire DaaaaAAaaaanes) & on the journey to bring her back home to his coldblooded beloved, he runs into a long line of magical obstacles that include a coven of bloodthirsty witches (with Michelle Pfeiffer among them), a group of brothers determined to murder each other to claim royalty & their resulting ghosts, a unicorn, a humanoid goat and, yes, a crossdressing pirate & his loyal crew of cutthroats. Stardust shamelessly panders to the Ren Fair crowd & knows exactly how campy it gets in the process. The film’s mix of ribald humor, playful gender-bending, and lighthearted glee for witchcraft & murder all amount to a wonderfully silly adventure epic & mythical romance. Honestly, the only thing holding it back from being a (remarkably goofy) masterpiece is its horrifically shitty CGI, which looks exceptionally poor even for the mid-2000s.

I don’t know if it was the film’s unicorn connection with Legend (sans the wonderful Tangerine Dream soundtrack, unfortunately) or a magical Michelle Pfeiffer recalling her past roles in titles like Ladyhawk & The Witches of Eastwick, but my favorite aspect of Stardust was the way it felt like a throwback to decades-old fantasy classics. It feels like the era of titles like The Princess Bride, The NeverEnding Story, and The Labyrinth is long gone & it’s difficult recall the last time a fantasy epic was this winning. (Sorry, Harry Potter fans; I just can’t get into it.) The best example I can think of from recent memory was Upside Down & most people hated that one (possibly because they thought of it as shitty sci-fi instead of great fantasy cheese.). Are Gaiman & Gilliam the last two significant personalities still bringing this sensibility to the big screen on a somewhat regular basis? (Obviously, Game of Thrones is doing well enough on the televised end of things.) I’m at the point now where any cinematic adaptation of a Gaiman work is more than welcome in my life whether or not I’m committed to actually reading the source material first . . . or ever. The world is thirsty for this kind of romantic fantasy content.

-Brandon Ledet