THE IRISHMAN (2019) – Scorsese’s Latest A Showcase for De Niro and Pacino But Not Among Director’s Best

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the irishman

I am a big fan of Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, and Al Pacino, so it goes without saying that I’m somewhat biased towards Scorsese’s latest movie, THE IRISHMAN (2019), which stars both De Niro and Pacino.

In short, I really liked it.

That being said, as much as I liked it, it’s not one of my favorite movies of the year, nor is it one of Scorsese’s best.

How could it be? With films like TAXI DRIVER (1976), RAGING BULL (1980), and GOODFELLAS (1990) in his canon of work, he’d be hard-pressed to match the quality of those masterpieces. Of course, there are a lot of folks out there right now who claim that he has, that THE IRISHMAN indeed ranks as one of Scorsese’s best. I didn’t quite see it that way. In fact, I enjoyed some of his other latter releases better, films like THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013), HUGO (2011), and THE DEPARTED (2006).

THE IRISHMAN chronicles the story of mob hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) whose lifelong association with mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) led him into a relationship with teamster Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). And while Frank and Hoffa became lifelong friends, Frank’s mob ties led to his involvement with Hoffa’s infamous disappearance.

THE IRISHMAN is long and sprawling, clocking in at a whopping three hours and twenty-nine minutes. Produced by Netflix, in addition to its limited theatrical run, it also premiered on the streaming service, and since I’m not made of money, I opted to watch it inside the comfort of my own living room on Netflix rather than pay for a movie ticket.

It takes its time telling its story, but to its credit it never drags or comes off as boring. I pretty much enjoyed every one of its 209 minutes. The story itself, told in flashback by a very old Frank Sheeran as he looks back at his life, covers events over three decades, from the 1960s to the 1990s, with a lot of the film occuring in mid 1970s. The screenplay by Steven Zaillian, based on a book by Charles Brandt, is as compelling as it’s comprehensive. The story is fascinating throughout and the characters convincing. Of course, it helps that it’s based on real people, and that it’s being acted by giants of the field.

Zaillian has an impressive resume, having written the scripts for such films as MONEYBALL (2011) and SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993).

Much of the hype surrounding THE IRISHMAN regarded its special effects by Industrial Light and Magic. Since the story takes place over so many years, rather than hire actors to play these characters at different ages, Scorsese decided to use a combination CGI and motion capture effects to film the likes of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino at these different ages. The results are a mixed bag. I thought the changes made to the actors’ faces by far was the best. I have little to complain about here. However, both De Niro and Pacino are in their 70s, and so while their faces looked younger, their bodies and their movements did not. To me, they always appeared like older actors portraying younger men, in spite of the digital enhancements to make them look younger.

As expected, the acting in THE IRISHMAN is powerful throughout. Robert De Niro delivers his best performance since his supporting role in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012), and his best lead role in years, for me, since RONIN (1998). In fact, watching De Niro in this movie was by far my favorite part of this film.

Al Pacino is also excellent as Jimmy Hoffa, and he enjoys many fine moments as well.

One drawback, however, is that both De Niro and Pacino here are portraying characters who are not Italian, and yet they’re surrounded by the Italian mob. I found this distracting and had a difficult time buying their take on non-Italian characters here.

THE IRISHMAN also features notable performances by acting heavyweights Joe Pesci— who came out of retirement to make this movie— and Harvey Keitel. Ray Romano also delivers an impressive supporting performance as mob lawyer Bill Bufalino.

As much as I liked THE IRISHMAN, I can’t place it up there with Scorsese’s best. It’s fascinating and compelling but rarely disturbing. For a mob movie starring the likes of De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci, that’s saying a lot that you can watch this film without breaking into a nervous sweat.

—END—

 

 

JOKER (2019) – The Most Believable Joker Story Yet

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joker-2019

The best part about JOKER (2019) is it’s more than just a movie about a comic book character.

Much more.

With its origin story of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), the man who would go on to become Batman’s arch nemesis The Joker, JOKER is less interested in telling the official Joker origin tale than it is in making his story believable. And that really is the strength of this movie. It painstakingly paints a portrait of a man who by the time everything is said and done, is completely believable.  The audience understands and knows exactly where the character is coming from. It’s by far the most sympathetic portrayal of the Joker on the big screen yet.

The film also has some things to say about society as a whole.

Arthur Fleck lives in Gotham City in a crummy apartment with his mother Penny (Frances Conroy). But don’t expect a cartoonish comic book setting. No, Gotham here in the 1980s resembles the gritty cityscape of a Martin Scorsese movie. Fleck works as a clown, and he wants to be a comedian, and his only goal in life seems to be the desire to make people laugh. Trouble is, he’s not terribly good at it.

He also has mental health issues, sees a case worker regularly, and is on seven different medications. Eventually he learns that due to budget cuts these services will be eliminated. When he asks how he will get his meds, the only answer he receives is silence. Now, there have been grumblings, criticisms, about the sympathetic portrayal of the Joker in this movie, but it’s important to remember that the character as depicted here suffers from mental illness. He’s an unhinged individual who needs help, and without that help, he’s not really responsible for his actions. And the film makes clear that even with that help, the system was failing him. Arthur complains to his social worker that she never listens to him and that she doesn’t really know him or his problems, and this seems to be true.

He gets jumped and beat up on the job, and as he says, people and society seem to be getting uglier and uglier. Eventually, as you would imagine, he snaps, and no, he doesn’t suddenly become a criminal mastermind, but he does become violent, doesn’t feel regret or remorse, and because society around him is also feeling left out from the “haves,” the people with wealth, people like Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), who of course is Bruce Wayne’s father, Arthur becomes the face of their movement to rebel against society. It’s not something he wants, but it happens.

When you finish watching JOKER, you’ll be amazed at how much you’ll say, “Yup, that’s how a guy would become the Joker.” It’s the most realistic and sympathetic portrayal of a character who in the past has mostly been portrayed as an over-the-top comic book villain. JOKER is saying not so fast. This guy exists in the real world, in the here and now. And it completely makes its case.

Joaquin Phoenix delivers a masterful Oscar-worthy performance as the title character. There no doubt will be comparisons to the other famous Joker portrayals, Jack Nicholson in BATMAN (1989) and Heath Ledger in THE DARK KNIGHT (2008). Before this movie my personal favorite was easily Ledger. THE DARK KNIGHT remains my pick for the best superhero movie ever made, and Ledger’s performance as the Joker is the main reason why.

I still prefer Ledger as the Joker, but Joaquin Phoenix here in JOKER does something that no one before him has ever done. He makes you believe that such a person is real and not someone who only belongs in a comic book. That’s something pretty special to accomplish.

Phoenix has always been a special actor, playing a wide array of characters and generally being convincing in all of them. Here, he lost nearly fifty pounds for the role, and he looks eerily thin and frightening. And that’s the thing. As sympathetic as he is as Arthur Fleck, he’s no less scary and unnerving. I absolutely loved his performance.

And it’s a good thing, because he’s in nearly every scene in the movie. It sinks or swims with Phoenix. He easily carries this movie and dominates throughout.

The supporting cast is serviceable but barely noticeable because of Phoenix’s mesmerizing performance.  But they’re all very good. Only Robert De Niro seems a bit miscast as late night talk show host Murray Franklin, a character that Arthur is obsessed with. He dreams about appearing on Murray’s show, and later, when this becomes a reality, it’s not quite the way he imagined it.

De Niro’s casting is interesting here, since this subplot hearkens back to the Scorsese movie THE KING OF COMEDY (1982) in which De Niro played a deranged man named Rupert Pupkin obsessed with late night talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis). But here in JOKER, as much as I like De Niro, he just didn’t seem like the late night talk show host type.

JOKER was directed by Todd Phillips, a director mostly known for his comedies, especially the three HANGOVER movies. There’s nothing funny about JOKER. Phillips does a phenomenal job.

He also co-wrote the screenplay with Scott Silver, a screenwriter with some solid credits under his belt. Silver co-wrote THE FIGHTER (2010), a superior drama starring Mark Wahlberg, Amy Adams, and Christian Bale, and he co-wrote THE FINEST HOURS (2016), an underrated period piece rescue mission drama starring Chris Pine and Casey Affleck.

Another fascinating aspect of JOKER is it puts its own stamp on the Batman origin story. Thomas Wayne is not a likable character here, and his death as shown in this movie looks very different from the way its been shown in previous movies, through the emotional eyes of a young Bruce Wayne. Furthermore, the connection between Arthur and the Wayne family adds further layers to what would later become the feud between the Joker and Batman.

Pretty much everything about JOKER works, from the acting, to the writing, to the music score, everything about this one screams authentic.

The world is an ugly place. There are the haves and the have nots, and the haves really don’t give a care about the have nots. And when the have nots have had enough, they rebel.

Arthur Fleck reaches the point where he’s had enough. And when he strikes back, he finds that he enjoys it, and better yet for him, he not only gets away with it, but becomes the face of a movement from fellow have-nots who are feeling the same way.

That’s not to say that the film is preaching rebellion. It’s not. It’s simply telling a story, a story that is perfectly framed by a quote which Arthur writes in his journal: “The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.”

Arthur Fleck has a mental illness. No one he interacts with acknowledges this. Society’s answer is a disinterested social worker and lots of pills, and eventually, even these are taken away because the haves no longer want to fund them. He’s been pushed around, beaten, fired from his job, suffered abuse as a child, and now he finds himself the face of an underground movement. For the first time in his life he’s being noticed. And it feels good.

It’s a story that could be told in the here and now, in 2019, as society faces the same dilemmas and offers the same useless solutions.

And we wonder why the Arthur Flecks of the world become Jokers.

That’s the true strength of this movie.

—END—

 

 

 

 

THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS (2018) – Not Such A Happy Time

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the happytime murders poster

The idea sounds funny enough: an R-rated raunchy Muppet comedy starring Melissa McCarthy.

I like Muppets, and I like Melissa McCarthy, and the notion of foul-mouthed Muppets sounds just refreshing enough to make this one something special.

Now, I realized this movie was getting dreadful reviews, but Melissa McCarthy’s previous film, LIFE OF THE PARTY (2018) also got poor reviews, but I actually thought it was pretty funny. So, I headed off to the theater to catch this adult puppet comedy.

And it is a puppet comedy.  I know I called it a Muppet comedy, but they’re referred to as puppets here, even though, yes, they look exactly like Muppets, and the film is directed by Brian Henson, the son of the late great Muppet creator Jim Henson, and director of two Muppet movies himself.

THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS takes place in a world where puppets and humans co-exist, but not equally. In fact, humans treat puppets rather poorly. What a surprise!

Puppet private eye Phil Philips (Bill Barretta) finds himself at the center of a murder investigation when the former cast members of an 80s puppet TV show, including Phil’s brother and some of his friends, are murdered one by one. Phil is a former LAPD officer, and his former partner Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) is on the case.

Phil left the force under tragic circumstances when he failed to make a shot against a fellow puppet and his stray bullet shot and killed an innocent bystander. The notion became that puppets couldn’t be police officers because they couldn’t be trusted to shoot their own kind.

When Phil himself becomes a suspect in the Happytime murders, he and Connie work together to help Phil elude the police and find the real killer.

The biggest problem with THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS is that the script doesn’t hold up. For starters, the story here is structured like a million other cliché private detective storylines with the Bogart-like private eye gloomily commenting on the proceedings with a film noir voice-over. For such an overused trope like this to work, the script would have to be incredibly good and creative, and sadly, it isn’t. So, the story becomes boring long before the film’s 90 minutes are up.

Admittedly, THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS gets off to a pretty funny start. Watching crude vulgar puppets swear at each other and worse, is hilarious at first, but without enough jokes to sustain it, the novelty of the whole thing wears off fast. That being said, there are a couple of laugh out loud moments, one involving an octopus and a cow in one of the wackiest sexual images you’ll ever see, and another involving an obscene sex sequence that takes advantage of the fact that you’re watching puppets. It shows things you wouldn’t see outside a pornographic movie but since the figures on-screen are puppets, the filmmakers can get away with it.

The film definitely earns its R rating. The jokes are lewd and crude, and they’re funny.

At first.

But then strangely they disappear. The first half of THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS is definitely the best half.  The second part of the movie simply isn’t as creative, and the laughs become pretty nonexistent.

It’s simply not a very strong script by Todd Berger. The jokes aren’t there, and neither really is the story. For the whole puppets in a human world storyline to work, there has to be some depth. We see humans being cruel to puppets, for instance, but only briefly and the whole thing comes off as incredibly superficial.  I didn’t believe anything about this puppet world at all.

The film only works when the jokes are funny, and this only happens early on. And the jokes are all of the vulgar variety, which I didn’t mind, but if you’re not into very raunchy humor, especially humor that is sexual in nature, you’ll want to avoid this one.

The cast doesn’t really help either.

The story is built around the main puppet character Phil, and he is a complete bore, which really drags the film down. Bill Barretta does an adequate job voicing Phil, and most of the time he comes off sounding like Robert De Niro, which only made me wish the real De Niro was playing the role.

Melissa McCarthy does her thing, but she’s simply not that funny here. She has a couple of okay scenes, but having seen a lot of her movies, this is one of her least comedic performances. I definitely enjoyed her more in LIFE OF THE PARTY (2018).

But I’m still a fan. She was hilarious in BRIDESMAIDS (2011), THE HEAT (2013), and SPY (2015), to name just a few of her movies, and she’ll be back again in top form I’m sure. Here in THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS she was simply okay and really didn’t have much of an impact in this movie.

Elizabeth Banks is stuck in a thankless role as Jenny, Phil’s former love interest and the one human star of the Happytime TV show.  Maya Rudolph, who has co-starred with McCarthy before, in LIFE OF THE PARTY (2018)  and BRIDESMAIDS (2011) admittedly does enjoy some humorous moments here as Phil’s secretary Bubbles.

The rest of the human cast is rather dull, and the puppets don’t add much either.

In spite of the potentially clever concept, THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS is pretty bad. In fact, it just might be the worst movie I’ve seen all year.

The film starts off funny, if you don’t mind your humor crude and rude, but then the jokes pretty much disappear, and the second half becomes a monumental bore.

In spite of its title, THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS isn’t much of a happy time.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00. Includes postage! Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For_the_love_of_Horror- original cover

Print cover

For the Love of Horror cover (3)

Ebook cover

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.