‘The Irishman’ Is A Return To Form For Martin Scorsese
Film reunites director with Robert DeNiro, marks first collaboration with Al Pacino
Friday, November 15, 2019
"Mean Streets" (1973)
"Taxi Driver" (1976)
Netflix is once again setting its sights on an Oscar with the release of Martin Scorsese’s "The Irishman." The film was produced for the streaming service and begins a theatrical release before airing on Netflix. It continues at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas and begins streaming on Netflix on Nov. 27.
I fell in love with Martin Scorsese’s films as a teenager in the 1970s, films like "Mean Streets" and "Taxi Driver." I was from New York, I was Italian, and I wanted to make movies so Scorsese was one of my cinematic idols.
But, for the past two decades, I have not been able to love a film of his as I did those early ones … until now. "The Irishman" marks a return to form for Scorsese, a return to those mean streets with less of that pandering for an Oscar feel of the past couple decades.
Scorsese should have won an Oscar ages ago for films like "Goodfellas" and "Raging Bull." But his inability to win the award he coveted seemed to drive him to make films that felt like they were catering to what he thought the Academy wanted. So he tried a period drama with "The Age of Innocence;" a biopic with "The Aviator;" and an homage to cinema with "Hugo." That also meant trading in the actors that were the heart and soul of his early films for more conventional Hollywood stars such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon and Cameron Diaz.
But with "The Irishman" he's finally back with Robert DeNiro and Harvey Keitel of "Mean Streets," back with Joe Pesci from "Goodfellas" and "Casino," and working for the first time with Al Pacino. All of this made me ecstatic before I even saw one minute of film.
As with "Goodfellas," "The Irishman" looks to a real life source of inspiration to weave an epic tale of mob life. For "The Irishman," Scorsese turns to Charles Brandt's non-fiction book "I Heard You Paint Houses" (the title refers to killing a person and leaving blood splattered on the walls), which recounts the life of union leader and alleged hitman Frank Sheeran.
Brandt was a homicide investigator and prosecutor who moved on to plaintiffs medical malpractice and was retained by the Philadelphia mob to secure the early release from jail on medical grounds of Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran (played by DeNiro in the film). That is how Brandt became friends with Sheeran and would later interview him in the years before his death for the book. During those interviews, Sheeran claimed that he killed Jimmy Hoffa although that has never been proven. He also made a lot of other colorful claims that fill the book and now the film, and I'm not sure if it's all true but it makes one helluva a good tale.
Scorsese revisits ground covered in films like "Goodfellas" but instead of the flamboyant style of a young wannabe gangster, Scorsese gives us a look back on the mob from a dying man’s perspective. The opening tracking shot slowly and painstakingly takes us through a nursing home (surveying all the lack of activity of the residents) until we find the aging Sheeran in a wheelchair. That long take reminds us of the dazzling, energetic single shot that follows the brash Henry Hill into a club in "Goodfellas." They are essentially the same type of shot but delivered in polar opposite ways for radically different purposes. In "Goodfellas" it was all about the seductive allure of the mob and the prestige it could carry but in "The Irishman" it's about the cost that kind of lifestyle can take and where it can leave you.
It's fascinating to see how Scorsese revisits flourishes from his past films but with this sense of an old man's weariness. But it reflects the weariness and age of the character not of Scorsese as a filmmaker — he is as vigorous as ever.
There's a scene of Sheeran picking out a gun to use for a killing and it is very similar to the scene of Travis Bickle picking out the gun he wants to have in "Taxi Driver." But Sheeran is looking at the guns with the kind of dull interest people display in having to decide which toilet paper to buy. The scene conveys the sense of how routine things like this have gotten for him.
There has been much buzz about the "youthening" CGI effects that allow the actors to play their roles across decades. But when it's applied to actors like DeNiro, Pesci and Pacino you quickly forget the gimmick and just enjoy their performances. What also helps is that we are introduced to DeNiro's Sheeran as an old, dying man. So he's in make up to look older than DeNiro actually is and that means we are eased into the fact that these actors are going to be playing a range of ages. While there are moments that you may become aware of the effect and the shiny tight skin, overall you simply forget about it and just get pulled into the story.
As you might expect in a film that spans decades and everything from the Bay of Pigs to Hoffa's murder to mob infighting, there's some scene chewing but there are also plenty of moments of silence and stillness for contrast. Sheeran's daughter (played by Lucy Gallina as a young girl and then by Anna Paquin) is almost wordless but in her silences we feel so much processing of information about her father and ultimately judgement of him. These scenes are some of the best in the film.
The cast from top to bottom is a pleasure to watch, although I wish Keitel had a bigger role. There are also surprises like Ray Romano playing a mob lawyer. But the joy of this film is DeNiro, Pesci and Pacino being given meaty roles to sink their teeth into.
I’m thrilled to once again be able to say a Scorsese film will be on my top 10 list this year. Hollywood and the academy may not like the fact that Netflix, a mere streaming service, is producing films by top filmmakers that are getting awards attention but without Netflix and Amazon Studios to offer financing for films that are not huge studio franchise films then films such as "The Irishman" and last year's "Roma" might not be made.
Clocking in at 3-hours-plus, "The Irishman" is worth experiencing in a cinema where you can give it your full attention and appreciate the sweep of its story on the big screen.
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