Friday, November 29, 2019

The Irishman ***1/2 (2019)

Many years in the making, The Irishman serves as the capstone to Martin Scorsese's cycle of mob themed movies, an anti-nostalgic epilogue to the passing of era, one rhyming with our own in uncomfortable ways. A fitting contrast to Quentin Tarantino's irresistible portrait of the late 1960s in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, The Irishman unfolds in blues and grays, a character study overcast with existential malaise told in dank Midwestern bars, hotel rooms, and offices. A gloomy film redeemed by Scorsese's steady hand, Steven Zaillian's literate script, and heavy duty performances from Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Al Pacino.

The film follows Frank Sheeran (De Niro), a truck driver who by tricks of fate fell into the orbit of mob figure Russell Bufalino (Pesci) and Teamster President Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). CGI helped de-age the actors for a story spanning several decades, providing a verisimilitude that's never too distracting. A WWII veteran of the Sicilian and Italian campaigns, Frank is an unassuming man familiar with violence. He never enjoys the act of killing, but he's really good at it. He also makes for reliable confidante to Bufalino and Hoffa. One could read the film as a dark version of Forrest Gump.

Pesci came out of retirement and here he's far cry from the violent psychopaths he played in Goodfellas and Casino, here he's a quiet and gentle man who wields great power. Pacino also delivers as Hoffa, portrayed as a besieged figure whose need for power and respect led to many disastrous decisions. By turns petty and sensible, Pacino exudes a wave of contradictions, by turns comical and tragic.

De Niro's performance is not dissimilar to his talk show appearances, cryptic and impenetrable. We never get inside the head of Sheehan, on the surface a simple man who powerful figures were drawn to and used to further their own ends. Taken deeper, there's something much more disturbing - the everyman hero turned on its head.

The violence, when it occurs, is never stylized or overstated. No music from Cream or Rolling Stones to accompany a beating, just an uneasy silence. When the climatic act of violence in the film occurs, it's brutal and heartbreaking. But what follows in the last act is a chilling denouement, chilling for its banality.

The Irishman is also a meditation on how violence has driven American history, most often carried out by white men who believed they were doing their duty. The question hangs - for what? Whatever the justifications - for the country, an organization, family, friends - all that's left is unspoken pain and regret. Yeah, The Irishmen is a downer movie, but a necessary one. There's no redemption. There's no repentance.

Primarily a story about aging men, many have pointed out the lack of women in the story, limited to wives and daughters who are oblivious to the lives their fathers and husbands lead. Anna Paquin appears as Frank's daughter throughout, but has little dialogue. The male dominated climate of film makes it colder and begs more questions about the past and today. 

An apt comparison would be Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, another film about a man who lived in high places but died forgotten. Many have called The Irishman the "anti-Goodfellas" in that it seeks to deconstruct the mythos of such films. Goodfellas is celebrated despite its critique of the lifestyle. The Wolf of Wall Street the same, but it also anticipated the Trump era with its portrayal of thuggish capitalism. The Irishmen explores power and corruption as interwoven into a fable of high tragedy - wintry and methodical.

With a 3 1/2 hour running time, Scorsese forces the audience to slow down and take in the story. We spend an awful lot of time with these characters and the movie sticks with you after watching it. 

Friday, November 8, 2019

Doctor Sleep ***1/2 (2019)

Almost 40 years after its initial release, the story that began with The Shining is continued in Doctor Sleep. The story picks up with Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) decades after the events at the Overlook Hotel. As an adult Danny is still dealing with the trauma caused by his father and the Overlook. A redemption story above all else, Mike Flanagan's direction exemplifies character driven story telling.

The first part serves as an epilogue to the events of the first film with Danny and his mom Wendy relocating to Florida. One of the biggest risks of the film was recasting iconic characters played Shelley Duvall, Jack Nicholson, and Scatman Crothers. Carl Lumbly replaces Crothers as Holloran, adding depth to the character who met an ignoble end in the original. An unrecognizable Henry Thomas appears as Jack Torrance. Casting new actors was the right choice instead of going the CGI route.

McGregor gives first rate performance as a recovering alcoholic who finds solace in a small New Hampshire town by working at the local hospice. An especially calming presence for patients during their final moments, Danny earns the nickname Dr. Sleep. McGregor is especially effective as playing Danny as child like, but never a simpleton. He's a decent soul who leads a quiet life until ghosts from the past start to reappear.

Newcomer Kyliegh Curran plays Abra Stone, a teen who shares Danny's gift. She has a lot to do in the story and in a way ends up becoming the protagonist. Curran and McGregor have a good chemistry in one becomes a moving mentor/student relationship. Cliff Curtis also anchors the story as Danny's best friend.

New threats come in the form of a gang that travels across country in trailers who abduct children for a nefarious purpose. Their leader "Rose the Hat" is played by Rebecca Ferguson as a New Age disciple gone wrong. She's charming and seductive enough to keep her from being completely despicable. Ferguson's speech cadence is especially effective, emphasizing words in mid-sentence.

Flanagan never tries to imitate Kubrick, but provides just enough call back to appease fans of the original. The Overlook Hotel plays a pivotal role and the music by the Newton Brothers channels the Wendy Carlos score. In a contrast to the overwrought It: Chapter 2, Flanagan has a knack for tapping into Stephen King's emphasis on childhood. Doctor Sleep has its own story to tell without resting on the laurels of the The Shining.