Tag: robert de niro

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.

Joker


Joker (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Todd Phillips’ “Joker” stares directly into the dark well of a man’s misery and asks the viewers to endure a series of highly uncomfortable, humiliating, and desperate situations. Although there are sudden, gruesome violence and plenty of blame to go around—government corruption, systems in place designed to keep the poor longing and powerless while the rich remain thriving and in charge, the way we choose to treat our neighbors—it trusts the audience to find empathy and compassion toward a person whose life is not without laughter but utterly, cripplingly devoid of joy. It is most appropriate that we meet Arthur Fleck, a clown by day and an aspiring standup comedian at night, from behind as he faces a mirror. Because in order to understand him, even appreciate him, we are required to take a look at ourselves.

The titular character may have comic book origins, but the film is a character study first and foremost. Each passing scene is a nudge toward inevitable villainy, but Arthur is never reduced to a cartoon. The work employs a hammer to showcase mental illness but it is necessary, in a way, because the character is larger than life. His life circumstances, however, are grounded in reality: he does not have a rewarding job, he is not respected by his peers (in fact, he is ridiculed or mocked), he has no friends, he is told he is not funny enough to be a comedian, and even strangers have a tendency to pick on him because he appears to be an easy target. People see him but not in ways he would like to be seen. Maybe that is worse than being invisible.

I felt deep sadness toward this character and Joaquin Phoenix does a superlative job in making us identify the person behind the supervillain name and clown make-up. Even when the camera is showing only his back, we can already feel the weight of Arthur’s depression, his frustration from being rejected again and again, and eventually his rage toward a society in which no one really gives a damn—it is in his posture, the movement of his back muscles, the way he breathes.

When the camera focuses on Arthur’s face, it is like reading an engaging novel. Here is a man craving to find meaning, to be regarded by somebody else as important—or relevant at the very least, to be wanted for his ordinariness, to be enough. It is a consummate performance and it is not just because of Phoenix’ skeletal frame or creepy laugh: Experiencing Arthur’s day-to-day existence is like watching a car wreck in slow motion. At one point we must wonder how much more can a person take. It is the kind of performance you don’t want to blink from because doing so might lead to missing a very telling information. Phoenix does not waste a moment.

It is appropriate that co-writer Phillips and Scott Silver take inspiration from Martin Scorsese’s pictures, “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy.” Images like the subject playing with a gun and aspiring to be shown on television are obvious—and I am not interested in that. I am interested, however, in the mixture of tone and feeling of the two classics, the former a psychological drama with thriller elements and the latter a satirical dark comedy. What results in “Joker” is a morbid sense of humor, an anti-joke, and an effective social commentary about personal and societal responsibility. I wager the work will stand the test of time.

The Family


The Family (2013)
★ / ★★★★

The Manzoni family are now the Blake family as they fall under the witness protection program. Fred (Robert De Niro) has snitched against a fellow Mafia and so he and his family are no longer safe in the U.S. They are assigned to live in a small town in Normandy where not much happens. It should have been easy to assimilate but the ways of the Mafia are ingrained deep in the bones of the Blakes. Though precautions are made, their identities are discovered eventually and a Mafia boss (Stan Carp) sends his henchmen to clean up.

The film works as an action-thriller but it flounders as a comedy. Given that it is supposed to be a hybrid of both, it never reaches a healthy balance so the experience is a great frustration. Coming into the picture, I had no idea that Luc Besson directed—and co-wrote—the material. And yet at the same time I was not surprised. The last twenty-five minutes is the best part of the picture—and majority of it involves building up the tension until the inevitable violence. It shows the efficiency of the Mafia when it comes to achieving a goal, why they are notorious.

It must have occurred to Besson and Michael Caleo that their screenplay is lacking a special spark. It is not at all funny. While the characters are supposed to be bored with their new small-town life, the movie is not supposed to be boring. There is a way of showing the dullness of the every day without necessarily being dull. Each member of the family gets his or her own subplot but all of them have little heft. Their quiet desperation is not communicated in an effective manner.

Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) frequents a church to deal with her guilt. Belle (Dianna Agron) falls in love with her substitute math teacher. Warren (John D’Leo) deals with the politics in his school. Fred wants to write but he is not allowed to write what he knows—Robert (Tommy Lee Jones), a supervisor of the program, makes sure of that. A lot is going on but not one is particularly engaging or compelling. I never once believed that the characters are a real family. Things happen but I found myself not caring.

In fact, I found one of the subplots to be quite cheap. A minor having sexual relations with an adult and we are supposed to buy that at least some aspect of it is romantic? While the subject can be interesting in a different film with much more intelligent or insightful screenplay, it comes off desperate here. It feels like the writers had run out of ideas and so they came up with this schoolgirl crush thing that does not make any sense whatsoever.

Based on a novel by Tonino Benacquista, “The Family” is almost devoid of inspiration. A month from now, perhaps the only moment I will remember from the picture is DeNiro watching Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” because the joke, while obvious, is on point. I certainly wished I was sitting through that movie instead.

The King of Comedy


The King of Comedy (1982)
★★★ / ★★★★

Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) is an unemployed aspiring stand-up comedian with a dream of headlining his own late-night talk show. Rupert is convinced that the way to achieve this goal is to persuade the successful Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) to get him coast-to-coast airtime for ten to fifteen minutes so that the country can discover his talent. But when Jerry avoids Rupert’s requests for appointments one too many times, the latter executes a drastic method to get exactly what he wants.

Written by Paul D. Zimmerman and directed by Martin Scorsese, “The King of Comedy” is sharp when it comes to its critique of celebrity obsession, so uncomfortable to sit through at times that I did not know whether to laugh or groan, and the themes it touches upon have become more relevant over the years especially now that we can follow our favorite celebrities in various social media. De Niro’s performance is one to be remembered.

It requires a bit of practice to be able to tell whether a scene is happening in actuality or only in Rupert’s mind. This is appropriate because we see the story through his eyes and he himself is not even aware between real and fantasy. There are even instances when he is so out of touch with reality, it fails to occur to him that certain courses of action he takes are considered criminal offenses. What matters to him is what he hopes to get out of a situation—to hell with consequences. And that is scary. We laugh at him and yet on some level we feel sorry for him. The screenplay is to be admired because it does not treat its subject like a caricature even though the picture is a satire.

There is one memorable scene right after another. One that stood out to me is the dinner between Rupert and a barkeeper named Rita (Diahnne Abbott). One is caught off-guard and assumes it is going to go smoothly… until Rupert steers the conversation into his dream of achieving fame and pulling out a book filled with his favorite stars’ autographs. While the scene is comedic, there is a sadness to it, too. Observe Abbott’s character very carefully. Rita just wants to have a nice, simple time with a man she sort of likes and yet instead of talking about one another, they are talking about other people. Instead of looking at each other, they are looking at pen marks on a white page.

Later, there is a fantasy wedding scene in which we get a chance to understand Rupert a bit more. There is an apology made about people in Rupert’s life not believing or not regarding him as important. It might explain his abnormal psychology, the irrationality of his fame-driven existence. Maybe being on television is proof that he is important. But then again perhaps it is all biology: brain circuitry gone awry or developmental problems when Rupert was a boy. There is a scene later on where Rupert makes jokes about his alcoholic parents. Perhaps there is truth there somewhere.

If I were to describe “The King of Comedy” in one word, it would be “relentless”—just like the main character. There is one awkward but telling scene right after another. Although Rupert Pupkin is obviously an extreme case of someone obsessed with attaining recognition, one still has to wonder: Why is it that many of us revere people just because they appear on television or the movies? Why are we not a society that shows the same level of enthusiasm for NASA engineers, scientists, mathematicians—those who make extraordinary contributions to society in order to make this world a better place to be in?

Wag the Dog


Wag the Dog (1997)
★★★ / ★★★★

“Wag the Dog,” based loosely on the novel “American Hero” by Larry Beinhart, is supposed to be a satire but it works as a realistic unveiling of the circus that is politics nowadays. It is savagely funny in parts, very curious in others, and, in a few instances, it makes one think deeply about the layers of truth, if any, shown in the media.

Mere eleven days before the election, the president is accused of having sexual relations in the Oval Office with a local Firefly Girl (equivalent to a Girl Scout). Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro), a master spin-doctor, is hired to perform damage control. “Change the story, change the lead,” he claims, and so he decides that in order to distract people from the president’s misconduct, the United States will be involved in a fictitious war with Albania. In order to accomplish such a feat, he requires the help of a Hollywood producer, Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman), to produce highly manipulative clips that are meant to be leaked to various news sources.

The picture moves at a fast pace with rapid-fire dialogue that is both intelligent and entertaining. More impressive is the fact that Hilary Henkin and David Mamet’s screenplay maintains a level of silliness and elegance throughout—a challenging balancing act—in addition to the requirement that just about everything we are seeing and hearing must remain realistic so that the subject being satirized delivers a powerful punch on a consistent basis.

De Niro and Hoffman take the script and sell the tricky lines convincingly. In a way, their two characters must be larger-than-life—because comedies usually require extreme personalities—but at the same time they tend to ground their characters just enough so that we believe it is possible to meet a version of themselves in an airport or in a line at a coffee shop.

Their numerous verbal sparring, even when they are not on the same page one hundred percent, is highly amusing. They have a good sense of timing as well as the instinct to break from the expected beats, especially when delivering long lines of dialogue, to jolt us into paying attention. Not once do we forget that these are seasoned performers, ones who are not afraid to take risks, to do something wrong, or sound wrong. Part of the fun is their willingness to just go for it.

The film, directed by Barry Levinson, offers numerous memorable secondary and tertiary characters, from William H. Macy’s CIA agent who knows the truth about the so-called war, or lack thereof, to Kirsten Dunst as a young actress hired to play an Albanian orphan trying to escape from her war-stricken village… shot in a Hollywood studio. These supporting characters, all funny in their own way, elevate an already high-level, smart, black comedy.

Dirty Grandpa


Dirty Grandpa (2016)
★ / ★★★★

“Dirty Grandpa,” written by John Phillips and directed by Dan Mazer, has a most infantile sense of humor and an emotional intelligence of a plastic bag. Just about everything about it does not work because it has no understanding of what makes real people tick. The so-called jokes rely solely on behavior and so there is no involving story, believable characterization, and genuine humor is created. It exists to annoy and make the audience feel uncomfortable.

It flops right from the very first scene. The setting is a funeral and the source of humor involves our twenty-something protagonist named Jason (Zac Efron) being so into his career as a corporate lawyer that we are supposed to think of him as so uncool, so boring, a square. The problem is, however, the screenplay has not gotten a chance to set up the necessary tone and atmosphere to pull off an attempt at comedy—let alone dark comedy—at this point. Instead, the would-be jokes often come across mean-spirited.

The plot involves Jason being tricked by his grandfather (Robert De Niro) to drive to Florida right after the funeral. The latter’s goal is to get his grandson to loosen up and realize that the girl he is about to marry (Julianne Hough) is very wrong for him. Although the plot is far from groundbreaking, no effort is made so that the grandfather and grandson are able to connect on a genuine level. Instead, we are bombarded with scenes where they curse at each other, get into very awkward and uncomfortable situations (it’s supposed to be funny that Efron’s character appears to be sexually molesting a child at the beach), down to a scene where they share a bed and one of them gets naked. Cue the penis shot.

The Spring Break scenes are rightly over-the-top but completely unnecessary. One might argue that the brainless middle section is very insulting to women, the LGBTQ community, and African-Americans—often simultaneously—and one would be right. I argue that it is even insulting to Spring Breakers because there is no sense of real enjoyment among new and old friends. It is so fake that notice shots where just about everyone at the beach look as though they have perfect bodies. If they did not, Grandpa would make fun of the target for having extra weight. This film is a commercial—which is not necessarily a negative quality, but it is a bad commercial because it fails to appeal to young people of all sizes, color, and creed.

I suppose if the viewer was in it to see Efron’s abs, arms, buttocks, one could recognize a whiff of entertainment. But such rock-hard things can be seen at a local male strip club, so why bother to sit through a picture that offers no value, entertainment, or entertainment value? The filmmakers—and the studios—ought to have asked themselves this question before releasing this embarrassment to the public. I felt awful that Aubrey Plaza, the best comedian in the film, is a part of this humiliation.

The Untouchables


The Untouchables (1987)
★★★ / ★★★★

Special Agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) is assigned to work with cops in Chicago to deal with the flow of illegal liquor and violence during the Prohibition. Everybody knows that Alphonse “Al” Capone (Robert De Niro) is ultimately in charge of importing and distributing alcohol to and around the country, but the police and others in power are either too afraid to stop him or are being paid to keep quiet. Agent Ness, therefore, thinks it is necessary to form his own team (Sean Connery, Charles Martin Smith, Andy Garcia), men of the law with whom he can trust, to bring down the head gangster.

Based on the screenplay by David Mamet and directed by Brian De Palma, “The Untouchables” is a good-looking action-thriller with a number of memorable set pieces that are certain to entertain. What the picture lacks, however, is complexity in terms of characterization. Though the demarcation between the good and the bad guys are well-defined, there is little cross-over in terms of how they think and the decisions they must make to achieve a goal. Thus, when a supposedly dramatic moment in which a character must choose between upholding the law versus personal vengeance, the dramatic gravity appears slight.

More than a few may argue that Costner is robotic in playing the lead—but I disagree. I enjoyed that it is difficult to read him at times, Costner playing Agent Ness almost guarded. After all, he is a stranger in the city and he has been assigned an important task of taking down one of the most visible criminals in the country at the time. I did not see his performance as robotic or wall-like; rather, the character has a lot to accomplish but he does not quite know where to start and so he covers it up by looking composed and professional. He wants to gain the respect of those who doubt what he can do.

De Niro’s performance is good but the character is not well-written. I found this Capone to be cartoonish—with only one really good scene involving a baseball bat. Mamet does not allow the character to do very much other than to look polished and sound sinister every time he must make a speech. The more interesting villain is Frank Nitti (chillingly played by Billy Drago), one of the henchmen who we cannot wait to get his comeuppance.

The action scenes make an imprint because they unfold like a thriller. Particular standouts include the station and the baby stroller, a rooftop chase, the raid at the border between the U.S. and Canada. De Palma employs uncomfortable pauses during critical moments. Just when we are ready to take the punch, he delays just a bit to catch us slightly off-guard. He does this time and again but it does not get old because there is almost always a bit of variation to keep the approach fresh.

The clothes, the sets, the hairstyles, and other elements designed to summon the 1930s are carefully picked out. Though they are easy on the eyes, they are never distracting. Couple the images of the past with a modern action-thriller score, one creates an interesting dichotomy. Although some may disapprove of the background music, I found it fitting considering the off-beat use of camera angles and pacing of action scenes.

“The Untouchables” would have been a more complete experience if we had gotten to know Agent Ness’ partners beyond what they can do superficially or their expertise. They are, however, given some memorable lines, particularly of Connery’s character giving advice to the federal agent in terms of what he should be willing to do or cross to capture the seemingly untouchable Al Capone.