REVIEW: “The Irishman” (2019)

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No filmmaker has explored the complex worlds of mob bosses, wise guys, and the streetwise better than Martin Scorsese. Over his 50-plus year career he has frequently returned to these crime stories many of which have a strong moral point to make about the consequences that come with such a life. It’s too early to say whether his latest gangland epic “The Irishman” is his best, but the fact that it must be considered speaks volumes.

Taking from the vein of “Goodfellas” and “Casino”, Scorsese unwraps “The Irishman” through the narration of its central character. Our first glimpse of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) sees him alone in a Pennsylvania nursing home. He begins telling his story which screenwriter Steven Zaillian adapts from the biography “I Heard You Paint Houses” by Charles Brandt. It spans three decades of mob jobs, labor corruption, and of course underworld violence.

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Frank begins his story in the 1950’s as a World War II vet driving a truck for a meat distributor. He crosses paths with Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), the boss of a Pennsylvania crime family. Russell takes a liking to Frank and their chance meeting leads to a handful of odd jobs around town. Soon Frank is entrusted with bigger responsibilities which earns him even more respect among the local wise guys.

Russell introduces Frank to Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) who runs the Teamsters labor union out of Detroit. Turns out Jimmy is feeling heat from the federal government because of his ties with organized crime (among other things). Jimmy’s also dealing with an ambitious Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano (Stephen Graham) who is working his way up the Teamsters rank. Jimmy becomes a mentor to Frank and makes him his #1 guy.

But as Hoffa’s relationship with the mob sours, Frank, who has close bonds with both, finds himself caught in the middle. While all of this is building up and playing out, a literal Who’s Who from the era’s real-life Mafia scene are represented in some fashion: Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno, “Crazy” Joe Gallo, and even Albert Anastasia among others. As someone who has done a fair amount of reading on the history of La Cosa Nostra it’s impressive to see how Scorsese and Zaillian weave so many in and out of their story.

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Equally impressive is watching big moments in American history unfold in the background – Bay of Pigs, JFK’s assassination and so on. It’s one of several things that gives this film its sense of time and place. And it’s one of many ways the film feels yanked right out of a time capsule. With a striking authenticity Scorsese paints a vivid portrait of America while highlighting the mob’s extensive influence.

There’s been a lot of talk about Scorsese bypassing the hiring of younger actors to help cover his sprawling timeline. Instead he uses some age-altering digital trickery that allows De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino to play their characters from their thirties to the seventies. Sometimes you can’t help but notice it, but not because it looks bad. It’s more of a subconscious thing. We know these actors are in their seventies so when we see them suddenly thirty years younger we can’t help but notice. Still it’s pretty incredible to see.

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“The Irishman” features so many classic Scorsese trademarks. It features abrasive, complex, and well-developed characters. There is its heavy focus on crime, violence and corruption. We get Scorsese’s pitch-perfect use of period music. And there is always someone wrestling with guilt, penance, and consequences. In fact, we are steadily reminded of the consequences. Countless times Scorsese freezes the frame on a character with text stating the date and details of their murder. It’s as if Scorsese is drilling home the point that the lifestyle may appear glamorous, but it all too often ends in brutal, violent death.

So you could say “The Irishman” is above all things a tragedy. Underneath its veneer of wise guy tradition and violence lies the story of a man facing the music for his embrace of mob life and neglect of his family. It’s a masterwork of storytelling and moves at such a crisp pace despite being three and a half hours long. Moreover it truly feels like a movie only Martin Scorsese could have made.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

 

Denzel Day #12 : “Inside Man” (2006)

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Over the last several weeks each Wednesday has been dedicated to Denzel Day at Keith & the Movies. This silly little bit of ceremony has offered me a chance to celebrate the movies of a truly great modern day actor – Denzel Washington. It finishes up today.

The fourth collaboration between Denzel Washington and director Spike Lee was 2006’s “Inside Man” and it had a dramatically different flavor than their previous three films. “Inside Man” was a straight-up heist thriller featuring an all-star cast and a character heavy story that plays out over a 24-hour period.

Washington is in top form playing Detective Keith Frazier, an ambitious NYPD hostage negotiator looking to land a meaningful case to push him up the department’s ladder. Despite being in the doghouse, his Captain throws him a bone after four masked robbers barricade themselves and a slew of hostages inside Manhattan Trust Bank. Frazier and his partner (Chiwetel Ejiofor) head downtown to begin negotiations.

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The mastermind is Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) who opens the film with a monologue about what he confidently calls his “perfect robbery”. His exquisitely detailed heist takes everything into account even anticipating the law enforcement’s every move. This (and perhaps a touch of arrogance) makes it tough for Frazier to get a leg up.

Now toss in a couple of outside pieces who add some unexpected layers to the story. First you have Christopher Plummer who plays Arthur Case. He’s the Chairman of the bank’s Board of Directors who has an intensely personal interest in the heist that goes beyond the millions of dollars in the vaults or even the hostages being held inside.

Case hires Madeleine White (Jodie Foster), a high dollar fixer with a direct line to the mayor, to use her vast and powerful resources to retrieve an immensely valuable safe deposit box from the bank before the robbers or the police can discover its contents. Case will do anything to get it and Madeleine will do anything for the right price. This just adds more complexity to Frazier’s already difficult assignment.

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Lee does a good job keeping all of these moving parts in line while also playing around with the timeline a bit. We see this mostly through a series of interviews with hostages who survived the robbery. These are interlaced with the main story and often pop up at strategic times. They are also a clever method of feeding the audience information about Russell and his master plan.

Lee gets a big assist from first-time screenwriter Russell Gewirtz and his razor-sharp script. Interestingly Gewirtz has only one other screenplay credit since “Inside Man” (2008’s “Righteous Kill”). That’s a surprise considering how well he constructs this story. He puts together a straight-forward but enthralling caper that does right by its characters while offering Lee the wiggle room to poke at a few social issues along the way. He doesn’t get to shout as loud as he usually does, but I enjoyed the break from his norm.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Isle of the Dead”

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From the first moment the unmistakable Boris Karloff appears on-screen in “The Isle of the Dead” you immediately feel a sense of unease. The English horror movie icon was known for his distinct voice and menacing, expressive face. In fact it was 1931’s “Frankenstein” and 1932’s “The Mummy” that made Karloff a star. “Isle of the Dead” certainly isn’t considered among those classics, but it’s an underrated and overlooked part of his fun and impressive filmography.

This 1945 horror thriller was actually inspired by an Arnold Böcklin painting. It takes place in 1912 during the Balkan Wars. Karloff plays General Pherides who takes an American war correspondent Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer) to visit the Isle of the Dead, a remote island cemetery where Pherides’ wife is entombed. Once there they find the wife’s grave vandalized while hearing the haunting voice of a woman. As they search out the voice they come across a home place housing a Swiss archeologist, a British dignitary and his sickly wife, a tinsmith, a housekeeper, and a beautiful young Greek woman.

As night falls the archeologist (played by Jason Robards, Sr.) convinces Pherides and Davis to stay. The next morning one of them is found dead and a doctor is summoned. He determines that the death is the result of a rare plague and quarantines the island forbidding anyone from leaving. The rest of the film follows the group as the plague or possibly something much more sinister claims one victim after another.

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The bulk of the story focuses on the cause of the mounting death toll. Concern takes over with some searching for answers in modern medicine and others in superstition. Some attribute the death to a supernatural force known as Vorvolaka. But once paranoia sets in different theories arise and suspicions lead to accusations. The movie builds on the fear and confusion of its characters which inevitably leads to division. It could be said the film is more interested in exploring these interactions than actual delivering horror. But that’s not to say it doesn’t give us some eerie moments particularly in the second half.

I can see some people having lukewarm reactions to “Isle of the Dead”. It doesn’t go all-out horror and its focus on suspense sometimes misses the mark. But ultimately it succeeds in being a compelling horror thriller with a fun Boris Karloff performance at its center. It has its share of creepy scenes and while some of its elements are absurd, the story plays out neatly and in a way I found to be quite fun.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “It: Chapter Two”

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When we last left the not-so-cozy little town of Derry, Maine it was 1989 and the seven friends who make up “The Losers Club” had vanquished the sinister child-chomping clown Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard). Knowing the possibility that he could return in 27 years, the group vows to come back to Derry if Pennywise every resurfaces. If that doesn’t scream sequel nothing does.

To be fair Stephen King’s best-selling novel made a clear that a sequel was all but guaranteed. And it’s not like the filmmakers weren’t saying as much before the first “It” even hit theaters. And I’m sure Warner Bros. didn’t mind making another film considering the first one brought in over $700 million against a modest $35 million budget.

“It: Chapter Two” deals with the inevitable return of Pennywise after 27 years in hibernation. A new cast plays the all grown up “Losers” while the original cast returns playing their younger selves in numerous flashbacks. Mike (Isaiah Mustafa) ends up being the only one who stayed in Derry and when he sees signs of the killer clown’s return he contacts the “Losers” to fulfill their oath. Strangely, with the exception of Mike, the group have forgotten key details of their friendship and their time in Derry. Turns out the further you get away from the town the less you remember.

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Bill (James McAvoy), Beverly (Jessica Chastain), Richie (Bill Hader), Ben (Jay Ryan), Eddie (James Ransone), and Stanley (Andy Bean) receive calls from Mike beginning their slow drip of returning memories. It also begins the film’s overly long and cumbersome task of getting these characters from Point A to Point B while checking off a lot of boxes along the way.

Navigating the unwieldy plot is just one of the problems effecting this overstuffed and wildly uneven sequel. The first film proved that these characters were at their best when they were together. “Chapter Two” fails to tap into that by keeping them apart for far too long. Take a long middle segment where each person goes out on their own to find their “artifact” hidden somewhere in Derry. It’s meant to show them facing and overcoming a buried fear from their past, but it plays out like one staged horror set piece after another some. A couple are good including Beverly’s despite it being completely spoiled in the trailers. Some are more interested in the grotesque while others are just ridiculous.

A couple of moments do hit home particularly when the group discovers their old underground clubhouse. The scene blends together sequences of the young and old in a way that makes their friendships seem authentic and tangible. There is also a tender emotional tug from the movie’s final few minutes that you can’t help but be effected by despite the bumpy road to get there.

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A few other things contribute to this disappointing followup. Several aimless story-threads are introduced that literally go nowhere. There is a fizzling love triangle that is all but abandoned. We get several hokey and uninspired appearances by Henry Bowers, the raving lunatic bully from the first film, then he is just dropped. Oh, and then there’s all of the supernatural mumbo-jumbo regarding a Native American tribe and mystical rituals that proves to be a waste of time. With all of this stuffing it’s no wonder the movie clocks in at just under three hours.

But perhaps the biggest frustration is with the handling of Pennywise. It’s as if returning director Andy Muschietti and screenwriter Gary Dauberman forgot what made him such a deliciously wicked part of the first film. With the exception of one lone scene Pennywise is relegated to the background of a series of set pieces. Gone is the creepy psychological terror and menacing presence. And Skarsgard, who was so good in the first movie, isn’t given the space to unsettle us. It’s such a shame.

Inconsistent visual effects that are more interested in shocking us than frightening us. An overly long running time clogged with too much filler and not enough drama. A good cast (particularly Chastain, McAvoy, and Hader) hampered by a scattershot script. Too many things weigh “It: Chapter Two” down and keep it from resonating like the first chapter. And too much time is squandered in the wrong places. I hate to say it, but I was happy when it finally ended.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

REVIEW: “It” (2017)

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Stephen King adaptations are in vogue again and you could say the 2017 box office hit “It” was the catalyst. King’s 1986 best-seller was first adapted as a 1990 ABC miniseries. But who could have predicted its more recent big screen iteration would have been such a record-smashing success?

“It” is directed by Andy Muschietti and written in part by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman. It tells the story of a group of kids in Derry, Maine, a small town apparently full of really crappy parents and a mind-boggling amount of ignorance of local history. I guess is has to be that way or otherwise no one would live there and we would have no movie.

The film opens on a really strong note. Set in October 1988, we meet big brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) making a paper boat for his little brother Georgie. The younger sibling gleefully splashes out into the rain to play with his boat but loses it down a storm drain. Peering into the hole Georgie sees the face of a clown who introduces himself as Pennywise (a wickedly good Bill Skarsgard). The clown lures his child prey closer and soon Georgie is gone.

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Six months pass and a pained Bill still holds out hope that his brother is alive. He recruits his rag-tag band of misfit friends (who affectionately call themselves “The Losers Club”) to help follow some leads. Among the group is the pointlessly crass loudmouth Richie (Finn Wolfhard), a high anxiety germaphobe (Jack Dylan Grazer), and the quiet pragmatist Stanley (Wyatt Oleff). Along the way they are joined by new friends, the sweet and lovably chunky Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), an outgoing tomboy Beverly (Sophia Lillis), and a tender-hearted orphan Mike (Chosen Jacobs).

All of these friends have several things in common. They all have crummy home lives (an essential story thread in the novel but too shallowly explored in the film). Each have been terrorized by a local bully (who is wildly overplayed by Nicholas Hamilton). And each have had horrific run-ins with the supernatural shape-shifting Pennywise who we learn feeds on the fears of the local children (and their limbs but I’ll leave that alone).

Muschietti proves to have a good grasp of horror imagery and his set pieces are routinely suspenseful and terrifying. Scene after scene is filled with rich, chilling atmosphere. And while they often play out the same way, each is inspired by the uniquely individual fears of the children. This gives light to the idea that when apart they are vulnerable but together they are strong.

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The coming-of-age stuff is much more uneven. To their credit the young cast of friends all do well and there is plenty of good chemistry between them. But it’s brought down by the film’s maddening need to fully invest in lazy potty-mouthed kid tropes and some cringe-worthy bank-and-forths we get as a result. Wolfhard’s Richie is the biggest causality, a comic relief character with some good moments but who is so forcibly pushed into caricature by the filmmakers.

Instead it’s in the quieter and more intimate moments that the kids and their relationships really flourish. For example, there’s a beautiful swimming scene where the crass silliness is dialed back and the kids come together in the most earnest and truest way. These scenes are great and it’s often Lieberher, Lillis, and Taylor who add the most emotional heft. To the film’s credit, it ends strongly with all the kids truly feeling transformed. It’s as if what they have experienced has changed them forever.

Watching “It” brought several other movies to mind, “Stand By Me”, “The Goonies”, even Netflix’s hit series (and all-around better) “Stranger Things”. The film is just as much an evocation of troubled adolescence as it is a horror romp featuring a malevolent clown. Yet it never strikes the right balance despite some effectively eerie sequences and moments of genuine humanity. And it’s obsession for crude juvenile banter and endless wisecracking makes the tone as unpredictable as Pennywise’s next creepy illusion. Still, the cracking visuals, its statements on bullying, marginalization, etc.,  and Skarsgard’s deliciously menacing performance ultimately save “It” from its flaws.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “In the Tall Grass” (2019)

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There has been a small wave of recent Netflix Originals adapted from the works of Stephen King. The most recent is “In the Tall Grass”, an unusual little horror-thriller based on a 2012 novella King co-wrote with Joe Hill, the pen name of his oldest son. It’s built around an interesting premise but unfortunately it’s one of the cases of there not being enough material to see the movie through to the end.

Writer-director Vincenzo Natali does what he can to stretch King’s short story to feature length. The entire film takes place in one rural location and features lots of tall grass, lots of yelling, and a huge mysterious rock at the center of it all. It throws out a cool idea or two and the cast is game but the whole thing eventually runs out of gas.

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The film opens with Cal (Avery Whitted) driving his pregnant sister Becky (Laysla De Oliveira) to San Diego where they are to meet with a family interested in adopting her baby. Along the way Becky gets nauseous so they pull over near a church in a remote area resembling the Midwest. Outside she hears the scared pleas of a young boy named Tobin (Will Buie Jr.) crying out of an endless field of (you guessed it) tall grass.

Unable to lead the boy to the road Becky and Cal make the cardinal mistake of venturing into the grass. Of course they get separated and their voices prove to be unworthy guides. It quickly becomes apparent there is something off with this field. Cal bumps into the wide-eyed Tobin while Becky crosses paths with Ross (Patrick Wilson), Tobin’s father who says he and his wife Natalie (Rachel Wilson) got separated in the grass searching for their son.

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The final piece of the human puzzle (and the only other cast member) is Becky’s ex and the father of her baby Travis (Harrison Gilbertson). He’s been looking for the siblings and finds their vehicle near the field. He too ventures into the grass getting lost in its haze of creepy hallucinations, disorienting sounds, and confusing time twists. Once he has everyone in, Natali begins unfurling his mystery. It includes unpacking old family baggage and throwing out some weird supernatural twists.

When everything finally comes together you can’t help but appreciate what Natali is doing. The storytelling can be a little thorny, but it’s pieces finally fit together in a pretty clever way. Still, there is only so much you can do with such a small amount of source material and in compensating for that “In the Tall Grass” repeats itself too much. And without any really compelling characters to latch onto, you’re left appreciating the idea while wishing there was more to it.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars