Tag: al pacino

The Irishman


The Irishman (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” reaches full power only in its final seventy-five minutes—which is a long wait because the entire work is about three-and-a-half hours. Within this compelling final section, we observe two things: Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) betraying a friend during his time as a hitman for the Mafia and his family leaving him, Frank now a regretful elderly man who cannot even walk, in the nursing home to rot. The latter is a betrayal in itself—at least Frank’s mind. Because, for him, working for the Mafia for as long as he did was an act of protecting his family. In reality, however, the strangers he called friends could have just as quickly turned their backs on him. This is a story of a man who lost everything. And by the end he is nothing.

We meet numerous personalities within the Philadelphia crime family. The screenplay by Steven Zaillian is peppered with a wicked sense of humor, especially when the movie screeches to halt and right next to a man’s face is a quick description of how he would come to meet his demise. More savage is in how Scorsese focuses on the big personalities—like Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), one of the leaders of the Mafia, and Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), leader of the labor union International Brotherhood of Teamsters with an obsession for decorum and punctuality—and constantly puts them through a wringer. Bufalino and Hoffa are nearly complete opposites, in temperament and physicality, but Scorsese is so confident and so focused in communicating to us what gets under these men’s skins. Pesci and Pacino deliver strong, hypnotic performances—they are masters of keeping silent but saying more than enough. And De Niro matches their terrific performances every step of the way with seeming ease.

However, the majority of the film failed to engage me in a way that is completely enveloping. While showing Frank’s rise within the Mafia ranks is consistently beautifully photographed, especially in getting period details exactly right, the dialogue possessing a firecracker quality at times, and historical events are tied into the plot in a relatively seamless manner, I found nothing particularly fresh in the rising action. I felt as though the director has told this type of story before with far more energy and creativity in “Mean Streets,” “GoodFellas,” and “Casino.” It feels like dragging our feet while traversing a familiar pathway. It is without question that the work lags and sags in parts.

Another problematic element is the de-aging technology. While it is impressive to see the performers magically turn young, I urge you to look a little closer. Focus on the eyes. This technology fails to get the eyes right because a young face is often shown possessing old eyes. It is creepy at times, yes, and some may even find it amusing, but more problematic is the fact that it is highly distracting during the most dramatic or tense sequences. As a viewer who has made it a habit to really look into the eyes of the characters in order to try to understand what it is they really mean behind their words, silence, and actions, aged eyes not matching much younger faces is impossible to overlook.

An additional shortcoming, but to lesser degree of severity, is the occasional voiceover not quite matching the lips. A tighter editing might have helped to cover up the poor audio post production. But for a high caliber director like Scorsese, this is an elementary mistake; I found it insulting that the final product, from a technical standpoint, is this sloppy.

“The Irishman” is worth seeing at least once, but it is far from this master filmmaker’s best work. The intention to tell a sprawling but personal story is present, but I feel both the innovation when it comes to telling a fresh crime story and the discipline to ensure the presence of top-notch technological and technical elements are not always present. See it mainly for the performances.

Serpico


Serpico (1973)
★★★ / ★★★★

Ever since Frank Serpico (Al Pacino) was a child, he has wanted to be a cop. Fresh out of the academy, he is ready to begin his career in New York City, but he quickly discovers that what he envisions does not match the realities of being a cop. It seems that wherever he turns, cops are taking bribes from crooks. Haunted by the corruption being committed by his colleagues, he turns to his superiors (Biff McGuire, Charles White) who promise action but end up ignoring his claims. When his life is threatened by his angry co-workers, Serpico feels he has no choice but to go public.

Based on the book by Peter Mass, I was not won over by “Serpico” right away because it plays upon the hoary template of a good cop going through endless frustrations and anxieties as he tries to battle bad guys in order to set things right. I wondered at the point the picture is trying to get across. Does he strive to set things straight for the good of the common people or are the changes he wishes to see an attempt to match his adulthood realities with his childhood fantasies?

In its early stages, Sidney Lumet’s picture goes on seemingly desultory directions: some scenes are dedicated to Serpico’s experience with crooked cops and others involve Serpico meeting Laurie (Barbara Eda-Young), a woman who just might be the love of his life. This bears mixed results. While the workplace and home life angles are interesting once in a while, they are almost never fascinating at the same time.

The romance did not do much for me; if it were taken out completely, the meat of the film—the conflict occurring in the workplace—would have been much leaner and more focused. A sense of immediacy and calamity within the police force would have been magnified if scenarios of the couple supporting each other and arguing were not there. It is clear that the weaker leg prevents the story from catapulting forward in a more consistent manner.

However, Pacino’s performance is so intense, he demands that we pay attention. Although the protagonist’s definition of what is right or wrong does not waver, there is an arc to the character—divorced from the kinds of facial hair he has at a particular point in time. As we have likely to have seen way too many times, movies with weaker and laughable screenplays would have relied on physical characteristics to create some semblance of an arc—shameless in trying to trick us with a sham journey.

Here, we feel the desperation in Pacino’s eyes and though his way of speaking when no one appears to be willing to listen. What matters most to just about everyone Serpico encounters is the money being accrued in one’s pocket. And when someone chooses to listen, like the well-connected Bob Blair (Tony Roberts) and Inspector Lombardo (Edward Grover), I found myself being very suspicious of them. We take on the way our lead character evaluates a situation.

The screenplay by Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler, which is based on a true story, takes advantage of the idea that, in real life, it is often very difficult, at times almost impossible, to discern between good guys from bad guys. A corrupt person in power might be holding a gold badge or a fancy title next to his last name, but no one can truly know what he or she will be willing to do in order to maintain the status quo or subvert it.

I realized that my suspicion toward well-meaning characters is a testament that I cared about Serpico’s mission even though some of the driving forces behind his motivations are not entirely clear. I wanted to see him get out alive and the venal individuals to get indicted for their crimes.

Stand Up Guys


Stand Up Guys (2012)
★ / ★★★★

When filmmakers dare to put two legendary performers into one film, it is not unreasonable to have a certain level of expectation. In this case, Al Pacino and Christopher Walken, known for their tough guy, gangster personas, the former an expert in detonating explosive outbursts and the latter commanding such a cold gaze that he can put ice on a popsicle, play two friends, Val and Doc, respectively, who spend a whole night getting into misadventures before one of them ends up dead by ten o’clock in the morning.

Doc is assigned by Claphands (Mark Margolis) to kill Valentine, recently paroled after spending twenty-eight years in prison, to avenge the death of his only son. Although Doc is having second thoughts, he knows that it will have to be done eventually–either by him, who considers Val to be a true friend, or someone else who could care less.

But the problem is not the premise. It is the best thing about the film. The screenplay by Noah Haidle is so dull, it does not give the performers and the director, Fisher Stevens, a fighting chance. The jokes are infantile, a lot of it having to do with erections and hitting on much younger women. The would-be laughs are so generic, I wondered if Haidle really had an understanding–and love–for older people and, equally important, the medium.

Halfway through, I wanted to demand to see the script. I suspected there wasn’t any. Sure, Val and Doc visit different places such as a brothel, a bar, a hospital, a diner, and whatever is open at night, but their exchanges do not have the energy necessary to keep us engaged other than the fact that Pacino and Walken are likable performers. Instead, the characters are reduced to using lines like “Remember when…” and “Just like the old days.” The picture suffers on an elementary level: it fails to give us a glimpse of the kind of history the characters share without relying on such convenient lines.

It might have worked better as a drama sans subplot. The women cardboard cutouts (Julianna Margulies, Lucy Punch, Addison Timlin) do not do anything to progress the plot anyway. If the story were set in a bar or a diner and the two men engaged in an interesting conversation that touched upon memories of their pasts–jobs that succeeded and failed, regrets about not making strong connections with other people, actions they wished they could take back–then it might have been interesting an experience. Instead, we are asked to find the comedy in the dead fish placed onto our laps.

“Stand Up Guys” is shockingly bad. At several points, Val asks Doc how much time he has left. While Doc looks at his watch, we wonder about a similar thing: the number of minutes we have yet to sit through and endure.

Two Bits


Two Bits (1995)
★★ / ★★★★

Twelve-year-old Gennaro Spirito (Jerry Barone) was desperate to get into La Paloma, the newly-opened movie theatre in town, but he didn’t have twenty-five cents to pay for the admission ticket. Everybody seemed to not have any change to spare because of the difficult times. Even his mother (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) saved every bit of money they had for food in order to care for Gennaro’s ailing grandfather (Al Pacino). Inspired by young street performers, our little protagonist decided to earn the money himself by taking odd and sometimes dangerous jobs to finally get inside the newfangled cinema. Main critiques about the film was directed toward a selfish main character who only cared about raising enough money as everyone else worried about bigger things in life such as hunger and deteriorating health. I felt differently because Gennaro was just a kid. Even though he was on the cusp of being a teenager, his brain was still like that of a child’s. He fixated on one idea and couldn’t let go until he was able to grasp it. In some ways, I found his adamant nature amusing because I was able to relate to him on some level. For example, when I really want to see a certain movie, I just can’t help but think about it. No matter what I do, I find it difficult to get rid of the fantasy of finally sitting down and seeing something I’ve so been yearning for. Obviously, there’s more to life than watching motion pictures, but Gennaro’s perseverance to see a film in the movie theater was more than the obvious. Whether he was consciously aware of it or not, I believed that he wanted to be a part of something bigger than himself, perhaps to share a rewarding collective experience in a dark room with strangers. Another interpretation was maybe he needed a temporary escape from his grandfather’s illness and the streets that served as his playground which was filled with people dealing with the Depression. Just because Gennaro was adamant about going to the movies, not once did I think that he didn’t love or care for his mother and grandfather. However, I did wish that the relationship between Barone and Pacino’s characters was explored in a deeper way. The adult Gennaro (narrated by Alec Baldwin) claimed that he and his grandfather had a special relationship. In the end, it still wasn’t clear to me what made their relationship so special. There were moments of genuine connection between them, like when the grandfather asked his grandson for a really big favor which might have been a bit too much to ask of our protagonist, but I didn’t feel the special element that the adult Gennaro, through a retelling of his memorable day, wanted us to experience. Written by Joseph Stefano and directed by James Foley, “Two Bits” contained some thoughtful scenes but it just felt short in achieving the magic that Giuseppe Tornatore’s “Cinema Paradiso” and Victor Erice’s “El espíritu de la colmena” seemed to effortlessly possess.

You Don’t Know Jack


You Don’t Know Jack (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★

The first time I heard of Dr. Jack Kevorkian was in my high school Psychology course when we learned about the ethics of dealing with patients. It was a particularly memorable chapter because Kevorkian and his methods sparked a rousing debate about his methods. Like in the film, students who did not support euthanasia, assisted suicide, argued mainly from the perspective of religious dogma. I distinctly remember thinking that it was such a weak argument because it lacked common sense. The reason why I support euthanasia was not about living or dying. It was all about choice. I’d rather jump off a fifty-foot story building than to allow the government to choose when and how I should die. I admired the film, under Barry Levinson’s swift yet careful direction, because it painted Dr. Kevorkian (Al Pacino) as Dr. Kevorkian and not as Dr. Death, as the media and his enemies unjustly labelled him. While the media and government played an integral role in Dr. Kevorkian’s struggle, the picture took a more personal route and allowed us to get to know the medical practitioner in question and his biggest supporters such as his sister Margo Janus (Brena Vaccaro), one of his oldest friends Neal Nicol (John Goodman), a fellow activist Janet Good (Susan Sarandon), and a lawyer named Geoffrey Fiegler with a flair for the dramatic (Danny Huston). All delivered very strong performances with utmost conviction and devoid of cliché. By showing us scenes not easily found in books or covered by the media, despite my support for the issue of euthanasia, I learned something new and surprising facts about Dr. Kevorkian. There were many scenes that moved me but one that I will not forget for a long time was when Dr. Kevorkian decided to be thrifty regarding the gas required to make the person unconscious prior to stopping the heart. That was an important scene for me because it marked the point where I thought Dr. Kevorkian crossed the line. While he did regret it afterwards, it was unethical because the crux of euthanasia was to allow a terminally ill person to die in a peaceful and humane manner. During that scene, the person was uncomfortable and experienced pain. However, I was glad that the filmmakers added that scene because it showed us that Dr. Kevorkian, despite his best intentions, was far from perfect and that his willingness to push the envelope without fully thinking things through was ultimate downfall. Pacino as Dr. Kevorkian was excellent. Although his portrayal was denitely not as eccentric as the actual person, I believe it was one of his most mesmerizing roles in years. “You Don’t Know Jack,” written by Adam Mazer, deserves to be seen especially by those who do not quite know where they stand in the issue. It just might help to put certain things into perspective.

Donnie Brasco


Donnie Brasco (1997)
★★★ / ★★★★

Based on true events, director Mike Newell tells the story of how FBI special agent Joseph D. Pistone (Johnny Depp), whose mob alias is Donnie Brasco, climbs the ladder of the mafia hierarchy. Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero (Al Pacino) takes Brasco under his wing because Brasco can become somebody that he always aspires to be–a high-level member of the mafia who has genuine power so he can be proud of his life and the things he has done. As Brasco becomes more into the mafia life, he starts to detach from his responsibilities to his job and, more importantly, his family (Anne Heche plays his wife). “Donnie Brasco” was not the kind of movie I expected. Although I did expect for it to have very entertaining tough guy conversations that were common to gangster films, I did not expect it to have as much heart. The relationship between Brasco and Pistone was fascinating because the two almost had a father-son relationship. The tricky thing was that Brasco knew all along that he eventually had to turn Pistone in to the FBI; how could he do that to a friend or a father figure? The performances were exemplary, especially from Depp and Pacino, because there’s a real complexity and tension between the characters and their respective families. I felt like the more they tried to help each other out, the more their families’ lives started falling apart–as if their relationship was toxic or was never meant to be. I also really liked Michael Madsen as Sonny Black. His tough-but-cool persona reminded me of his character Mr. Blonde in “Reservoir Dogs.” Ultimately, this film is about the two lead characters’ evolution: one toward the mafia life and one away from it. For a two-hour running time, we wereable to observe the differences between what a character was thinking and what a character was doing. Although there were a plethora of similiarities between the two, the differences were enough to trigger a certain nuanced intelligence that are worth discussing when the credits start rolling. “Donnie Brasco” is arguably unlike other gangster pictures because it does not necessarily focus on how to be a gangster but on what it means to be a gangster. It’s worth seeing.

The Insider


The Insider (1999)
★★★★ / ★★★★

This film is so intense from the moment it started and the plot only got more complex (not to mention more interesting) from there. This is based on a true story of a man who was interviewed on “60 Minutes” (played by Russell Crowe as Dr. Jeffrey Wigand) to expose the lies of a tabacco corporation, especifically Brown & Williamson, when they claimed that nicotine is not at all addictive and harmful to one’s well-being. Complexity ensues when the tabacco corporation threatens CBS with a lawsuit; CBS then decides not to show the public the interview because they thought that they would lose, which is truly heartbreaking because Dr. Wigand has sacrificed both his professional and personal life for that one (compelling) interview. Lowell Bergman (played by Al Pacino) approaches Dr. Wigand for a story and he shows the audiences what it means to have journalistic integrity. I find it very difficult to summarize the plot of the film because there are many layers to it. The only way to fully understand the picture is to watch it closely because each detail comments on how the media functions, how far corporations are willing to go to protect their money and those unfortunate people that get caught in the giant maelstrom of lies, confusion, and deceit (not to mention death threats and restraining orders). Yes, it’s a wordy film and it will definitely repel those that are not into watching pictures that are all about the technicalities in bureaucracies, but that’s what makes “The Insider” so rewarding: it’s not a common motion picture. There are a lot of highlights in the film but some of my favorites include: Bruce McGill’s anger during Dr. Wigand’s deposition, Pacino’s speech involving a “cat” being “out of the bag,” and Crowe’s scenes when he was alone as he reflects upon his past actions–questioning himself whether or not what everything he’s done is worth it. I felt so much for Crowe’s character because the blood-sucking Brown & Williamson fired him for no reason and then later took everything from him to the point where I felt like Crowe’s character was on the verge of suicide. I highly recommend this film, directed with such visual flair by Michael Mann, because it is able to tackle the idea of character assassination in a very scary but very realistic manner. I will remember this film for a very long time because pretty much everything about it works, especially the intense acting from all the actors involved.

Angels in America


Angels in America
★★★★ / ★★★★

Since this film runs for six hours, Netflix divided the movie into two discs. I will review the first half and then the second half because I saw the latter a couple of days after I saw the former. I admire the first part of this picture because it’s not afraid to fuse realistic and fantastic elements that share one common goal: to show how the AIDS epidemic, pretty much unknown at the time, impacts those people who have been infected and those they care about. But it actually rises above its main thesis: it also manages to tackle issues like denial of one’s homosexuality, what it means to be a lover and a friend, power struggle in the business world, relationships by means of convenience…

On top of all that, the performances are simply electric, especially Al Pacino, Patrick Wilson, Meryl Streep, and Emma Thompson. We don’t see much of Streep and Thompson in the first half but whenever they’re on screen, they completely involve the audience because they know how to balance the obvious and the subtle so well. They have a certain elegance that no ordinary actor posesses. As for Pacino, he’s a master of reaching one extreme to the next without ever having to sacrifice his character’s believability. I can argue that he’s one of the most complex characters, out of many, that this film (which is based on a play) has to offer. As Pacino’s protégé, I think this is Wilson’s best performance that I’ve seen. As a closeted Mormon homosexual, he tries so hard to hide who he really is to the point where his emotional pain becomes physical. In most of his scenes, I could feel his sadness, anger, frustration, and (eventual) relief–all at the same time. He has such a poetic face that’s so expressive; I couldn’t take my eyes off him. His relationship with his wife, played by Mary-Louise Parker, is complicated, to say the least, because Wilson considers her as more like a friend but she considers him to be a husband. Other noteworthy actors include Justin Kirk as an AIDS patient who is abandoned by his lover, played by Ben Shenkman. Jeffrey Wright is amazing because he speaks the truth without apologies. He plays multiple characters like Streep, Thompson, and Kirk but Wright is the one that I can relate with the most. The idea of escape is crucial ranging from experiencing hallucinations to doing or saying the opposite of what the person actually means to do or say.

As for the second half, the idea of interconnectedness is more prevalent. Since the characters are finally established, they are allowed to interact and play with each other a bit more. This means that strong acting is at the forefront. But what I found most frustrating was the fantastic elements overshadowing reality half of the time. Even though those fantasy scenes do contribute to the overall big picture, they are so cheesy and slow to the point where I found myself checking the time. I was more invested with the reality because the characters that we care about are dealing with things that have something to do with reality like disease and acceptance. Faith is merely the background and focusing on it too much is distracting at best. I thought the way the film ended was handled well; not everything is neatly tied up and the way the actors looked into the camera to convey their last messages was, strangely enough, effective.

This film has such a huge scope but it delivers on more than one level. I found it consistently interesting because it is character-driven and the characters behave like real people. In end, pretty much all the characters have changed in some way. Even though this was released back in 2003, I still consider it to be one of the most important films of the 2000’s.