Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sat Nov 23, 2019 12:55 pm 
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MARTIN SCORSESE: THE IRISHMAN (2019) - New York Film Festival

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AL PACINO AND ROBERT DE NIRO IN THE IRISHMAN

Old song

From Martin Scorsese, who is in his late seventies, comes a major feature that is an old man's film. It's told by an old man, about old men, with old actors digitized (indifferently) to look like and play their younger selves as well. It's logical that The Irishman, about Teamsters loyalist and mob hit man Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), who became the bodyguard and then (as he tells it) the assassin of Union kingpin Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) should have been chosen as Opening Night Film of the New York Film Festival. Scorsese is very New York, even if the film is set in Detroit. He is also a good friend of Film at Lincoln Center. And a great American director with an impressive body of work behind him.

To be honest, I am not a fan of Scorsese's feature films. I do not like them. They are unpleasant, humorless, laborious and cold. I admire his responsible passion for cinema and incestuous knowledge of it. I do like his documentaries. From Fran Lebowitz's talk about the one he made about her, I understand what a meticulous, obsessive craftsman he is in all his work. He also does have a sense of humor. See how he enjoys Fran's New York wit in Public Speaking. And there is much deadpan humor in The Irishman at the expense of the dimwitted, uncultured gangsters it depicts. Screenwriter Steven Zaillian's script based on Charles Brandt's book about Sheeran concocts numerous droll deadpan exchanges. It's a treat belatedly to see De Niro and Pacino acting together for the first time in extended scenes.

The Irishman is finely crafted and full of ideas and inspires many thoughts. But I found it monotonous and overlong - and frankly overrated. American film critics are loyal. Scorsese is an icon, and they feel obligated, I must assume, to worship it. He has made a big new film in his classic gangster vein, so it must be great. The Metascore, 94%, nonetheless is an astonishment. Review aggregating is not a science, but the makers of these scores seem to have tipped the scales. At least I hope more critics have found fault with The Irishman than that. They assign 80% ratings to some reviews that find serious fault, and supply only one negative one (Austin Chronicle, Richard Whittaker). Of course Armond White trashes the movie magnificently in National Review ("Déjà Vu Gangsterism"), but that's outside the mainstream mediocre media pale.

Other Scorsese stars join De Niro and Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel. This is a movie of old, ugly men. Even in meticulously staged crowd scenes, there is not one young or handsome face. Women are not a factor, not remotely featured as in Jonathan Demme's delightful Married to the Mob. There are two wives often seen, in the middle distance, made up and coiffed to the kitsch nines, in expensive pants suits, taking a cigarette break on car trips - it's a thing. But they don't come forward as characters. Note also that out of loyalty to his regulars, Scorsese uses an Italo-American actor to play an Irish-American. There's a far-fetched explanation of Frank's knowledge of Italian, but his Irishness doesn't emerge - just another indication of how monochromatic this movie is.

It's a movie though, ready to serve a loyal audience with ritual storytelling and violence, providing pleasures in its $140 million worth of production values in period feel, costumes, and snazzy old cars (though I still long for a period movie whose vehicles aren't all intact and shiny). This is not just a remake. Its very relentlessness in showing Frank's steady increments of slow progress up the second-tier Teamsters and mafia outsider functionary ladders is something new. But it reflects Scorsese's old worship of toughs and wise guys and seeming admiration for their violence.

I balk at Scorsese's representing union goons and gangsters as somehow heroic and tragic. Metacritic's only critic of the film, Richard Whittiker of the Austen Chronicle, seems alone in recognizing that this is not inevitable. He points out that while not "lionizing" mobsters, Scorsese still "romanticizes" them as "flawed yet still glamorous, undone by their own hubris." Whittiker - apparently alone in this - compares this indulgent touch with how the mafia is shown in "the Italian poliziotteschi," Italian Years of Lead gang films that showed them as "boors, bullies, and murderers, rather than genteel gentlemen who must occasionally get their hands dirty and do so oh-so-begrudgingly." Whittiker calls Scorsese's appeal to us to feel Sheeran's "angst" when he's being flown in to kill "his supposed friend" (Hoffa) "a demand too far."

All this reminded me of a richer 2019 New York Film Festival mafia experience, Marco Bellocchio's The Traitor/Il traditore, the epic, multi-continent story of Tommaso Buscetta, the first big Italian mafia figure who chose to turn state's witness. This is a gangster tale that has perspective, both morally and historically. And I was impressed that Pierfrancesco Favino, the star of the film, who gives a career-best performance as Buscetta, strongly urged us both before and after the NYFF public screening to bear in mind that these mafiosi are small, evil, stupid men. Coppola doesn't see that, but he made a glorious American gangster epic with range and perspective. In another format, so did David Chase om the 2000-2007 HBO epic, "The Sopranos." Scprsese has not done so. Monotonously, and at overblown length, he has once again depicted Italo-Americans as gangsters, and (this time) unions as gangs of thugs.

The Irishman, 209 mins,. debuted at New York as Opening Night Film; 15 other international festivals, US theatrical release Nov. 1, wide release in many countries online by Netflix Nov. 27. Metascore 94%.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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