Capone Aims For Greatness But Instead Becomes a Real Mess

Al Capone was an American gangster and businessman who became a notorious crime boss during the Prohibition Era, and he has long since become a major figure in popular culture. Many actors have portrayed him over the years like Robert De Niro, Rod Steiger, Jason Robards, Ben Gazzara, Ray Sharkey, William Forsythe and F. Murray Abraham to name a few, and it certainly is a juicy role for any actor to take on as he became a character Shakespeare would have been proud to write about. The great Tom Hardy is now the latest to play him in Josh Trank’s biographical film “Capone,” one of the many films meant to be released in theaters but, because of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic, is instead making its debut on VOD. Whether or not it deserves this particular fate will depend on what you think about the finished product, and this one does come with a lot of baggage.

Whereas many films about Capone focus on his time as a feared crime boss, this one looks at his final year of existence. “Capone” starts off informing the audience of how the famed gangster was sentenced to prison on October 17, 1931 for tax evasion and released a decade later when he was no longer deemed a threat to society. When we first see him here, he is living in Florida with his family and close friends, and we see he is also afflicted with neurosyphilis and dementia which deeply affects the way he sees reality.

Before I go on, I should point out what neurosyphilis really is. According to Wikipedia, it is an infection of the central nervous system which can occur at any age, and “Capone” looks to illustrate how bad this disease can get. While the man is resting in retirement in Palm Island, Florida, his mind is quickly rotting away to where he begins suffering from hallucinations and loses control over his bodily functions. This results in him suffering from some embarrassing situations no one would ever want to be caught in, and I wondered how long he would allow himself to endure such unbearable torture.

I have seen Capone portrayed in many movies like “The Untouchables,” “Road to Perdition” (albeit in a deleted scene), “Mobsters” and “The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” to where I feel lI know all there is to know about him. With “Capone,” I got to see another chapter which of his life which I was not as familiar with. It may not be as cinematic a story as his days as a feared crime boss, but it does provide us with a different look at a gangster when his mental capacities were fading rapidly. I also cannot think of a single film which has dealt with syphilis this intimately or in depth. Come to think of it, I’m not sure I want to. The word syphilis is an icky word even when you don’t know its meaning.

But as “Capone” goes on, I kept wondering what everyone here was trying to accomplish. Some filmmakers prefer not to spell out the meaning of their movies, and that’s fine. When it comes to this one, however, I am at a loss because everything becomes a huge mess long before the end credits. The filmmakers go only so deep into the gangster’s addled brain, or what’s left of it, and what we are left with is a lot of unpleasantness and a screenplay which could have used a lot more depth. What exactly was the point of showing us all of this? To make us understand how bad any kind of syphilis is? To see if Capone is worthy of forgiveness and redemption. A lot of questions are brought up, but I never found any satisfying answers.

The big draw here is obviously Tom Hardy, and I am prepared to see him in anything and everything. From a distance, he looks to be the perfect actor for this role having portrayed such villainous figures in “Bronson” and “The Dark Knight Rises.” But while he certainly has inhabited Capone as much as an actor can physically, his performance here is deeply flawed as he more often than not slips into caricature which sucks all the naturalism out of what I thought would be a fully formed character. This is especially the case when you take into account how his co-stars Linda Cardellini, Matt Dillon, Kyle MacLachlan and Kathrine Narducci slip into their roles so easily to where I never caught them acting. Basically, everyone seems to be on the same wavelength except Hardy who appears to be acting in a completely different film, and his bombastic portrayal is a shock considering what a reliable actor he usually is.

But when it comes to “Capone,” the person everyone has their eyes on is writer and director Josh Trank. Back in 2012, he made his big Hollywood breakthrough with “Chronicle,” a found-footage thriller which smartly transcended its genre and provided a huge boost to the careers of Michael B. Jordan and Dane DeHaan. Then he followed it up with the “Fantastic Four” reboot which rode a tidal wave of bad press all the way up to its opening, and quickly became a critical and commercial disaster which must have had a devastating effect on him. Thanks to this nightmarish reception, and to Trank’s tweet about there being a better version of the film which may never see the light of day, he looked to be forever consigned to director jail along with other filmmakers who blew their big chance at a long-lasting career. Still, we all love a comeback, and “Capone” certainly looked like it would wipe away the stench from the rare comic book/superhero movie flop.

I certainly wanted “Capone” to be a success for Trank, but while his filmmaking skills have improved, his screenplay is full of elements which never gel into a satisfying or cohesive whole. It is tempting to believe he relates to Capone’s hellish last year as it threatens to be quite similar to the battles he had with studio executives over “Fantastic Four” as the gangster deals endlessly with paranoia over paparazzi hiding in the bushes and of people he believes may be out to kill him. But when the film finally ends, I came out of it unsure what to think. In his attempts to continually go against the Hollywood grain, Trank instead alienates any audience this film hopes to have as he becomes more interested in rubbing our faces in Capone’s diseased state of mind instead of creating a truly compelling narrative.

Well, Hardy will certainly rebound from this misfire sooner rather than later. As for Trank, there’s always a chance at another comeback. I just hope that next time he works harder at creating a motion picture which is not so much anti-Hollywood, but one which transcends another genre the way “Chronicle” did. “Capone” certainly provides us with a unique look at one of America’s best-known gangsters, but when its all over, I could not help but wonder if it was a story worth telling.

* * out of * * * *

The Irishman – A True Martin Scorsese Masterpiece

I cannot believe it took me so long to watch Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman.” Then again, when a movie is three and a half hours long, it feels like you have to set aside a whole day in order to watch it. Like many, I am working from paycheck to paycheck, so taking time off from work is tricky to say the least. But hey, this is Scorsese and, as I write this, we are still in a pandemic quarantine because of Coronavirus (COVD-19). With this in mind, there is no better time to watch a movie which is almost four hours long. Besides, it’s not like we can go anywhere.

Well, to be honest, at 209 minutes there is not a single wasted shot to be found in “The Irishman.” Like Scorsese’s best films, it takes you back to a place and time so vividly to where you feel like you are there. It also features a main character who gets sucked deep into the criminal underworld where one’s morality takes a backseat, and we come to see the high price many pay for living such a life. But with this film, Scorsese takes things a bit further as we see this main character whittling away his last days in a nursing home, and we are made to wonder if one person who has killed so many can ever find redemption.

We are introduced to Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a World War II veteran who is working as a delivery truck driver in 1950’s Philadelphia. On one of his routes, he runs into Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), head of the Northeastern Pennsylvania crime family, and eventually comes to do jobs for him as well as for members of the South Philadelphia underworld. Many of these jobs have him, as he puts it, “painting houses.”

Now while this film is called “The Irishman,” but you do not see this title at the beginning. Instead, we are the following: “I Heard You Paint Houses.” This is the name of the nonfiction book by Charles Brandt upon which “The Irishman” is based, but this title is not meant to be taken literally as it proves to be a euphemism for murder or contract killing. When Frank paints houses, he is essentially painting the walls with the blood of his targets. Later on, Frank also says he does his own carpentry work, meaning he cleans up after himself as well.

Just as in “Goodfellas” and “Casino,” the violence comes fast and bloody, and no one knows they are about to get hit. But unlike those films, Scorsese largely portrays the violence in “The Irishman” as largely banal or being just an average day at work. There was one sequence where we see Frank dumping a variety of firearms into the river, and this leads to a scene I have been waiting to see in a film for ages; We see a gun, after it has been dropped, sinking into the water and landing at the bottom where dozens of other firearms have been dumped as well. Considering the endless number of TV shows and movies which have shown characters doing this, this scene had to happen eventually.

Working with longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese takes a non-linear approach with “The Irishman,” and it proves to be a brilliant study in film editing. Just as Ethan Hawke did with “Blaze,” Scorsese and Schoonmaker takes us from one period of time in Frank’s life to the next with what seems like relative ease. No sudden change in the storyline ever seems jarring or misplaced, and it made this great film even more compelling than it already is.

As Frank continues to keep painting houses, Russell eventually comes to introduce him to the head of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). As pro-union as Hoffa appears to be, he still has one foot in the criminal underwood which has provided him with much funding. He struggles to balance out his duties with the teamsters and with members of the federal government, several of which look to take him down and send him to prison. During this era, Frank and Jimmy become great friends to where Jimmy hires him as his personal bodyguard. However, knowing what eventually happened to Hoffa, we know this story will not have a happy ending.

Seriously, how great is it to see all these actors working with Scorsese again? This is De Niro’s first film with him since 1995’s “Casino,” and I wondered if Scorsese could ever pull himself away from Leonardo DiCaprio long enough to do one more project with the “Raging Bull” actor. As Frank Sheeran, De Niro gives us one of his more subtle performances in recent years as he presents this character as someone who could easily disappear into the shadows. Had he never run into Russell Bufalino, Frank would have been another guy just doing a day job and supporting his wife and kids as best he can. De Niro makes us see this clearly as Frank does what he can to protect his family even as he delves deeper and deeper into a sinful life.

I am glad to see Pesci come out of retirement to appear here as he makes Russell into a study in quiet power. Russell never has to speak up too loudly to let you know who makes the rules in the mob, and Pesci almost succeeds in making Russell into the nicest character he has ever played in a Scorsese film. This is especially the case when you compare him to the characters he portrayed in “Goodfellas” and “Casino.”

There are some other performances I want to single out here as well. Harvey Keitel, working with Scorsese for the first time since “The Last Temptation of Christ,” is a very welcome presence here as mob boss Angelo Bruno. I also got a real kick out of Ray Romano who plays IBT attorney, Bill Bufalino, and he continues to prove to the world he is a better actor than we typically give him credit for.

And then there’s Al Pacino who, to everyone’s utter astonishment, is making his first ever appearance in a Scorsese film. Looking at their careers, you figured these two were made for each other, but it took the role of Jimmy Hoffa for these two to finally collaborate. While he does have some of those “whoo-ah” moments which have infected his acting ever since “Scent of a Woman,” Pacino ends up giving one of his very best performances in quite some time here. As Hoffa, he makes the long-lost teamster boss a study in pride as it comes to be one of his biggest sins. Even when the cards are stacked against him, Hoffa believes he is untouchable, and Pacino makes his boundless pride all the more reckless and palpable.

Now there has been some controversy regarding Anna Paquin who plays Frank’s daughter, Peggy Sheeran. Many have said she does not have enough dialogue, and this is especially pertinent as “The Irishman” relegates the majority of its female characters to the back burner. However, I think people miss the point. After Frank beats up a storekeeper for berating Peggy, we see her living in constant fear of her father to where she is terrified to speak up. When Peggy does, Paquin turns it into a truly a shattering moment as any trust between Peggy and Frank is forever shattered to where no one needs to spell out why. Seriously, the look on Paquin’s face speaks volumes, and she needs no extra dialogue to tell us what we need to know.

As we watch Frank recede in his golden years, we see him desperately trying to reconnect with his family his efforts are rebuffed constantly as they see right through him. Peggy, in particular, shuts him down at every opportunity even as he begs for her to listen to him. When I think of the relationship between Frank and Peggy, I am reminded of a scene between Michael and Kay in “The Godfather Part III:”

“I did what I could, Kay, to protect all of you from the horrors of this world.”

“But you became my horror.”

When we reach “The Irishman’s” last act, Frank is a shell of his former self as he wastes away in a wheelchair and reflects on a past which everyone has forgotten or never bothered to learn about. This proved to be one of the most interesting aspects of this film to me. When “Goodfellas” and “Casino” reached their conclusions, their main characters barely managed to escape certain death, and the stories stopped there. But here, we see what happens to Frank long after he has left his criminal life behind, and there isn’t much left for him except to pray for some form of redemption. Looking at Frank’s life, it is tempting to think he is hardly worthy of any kind of redemption. But then again, who are we to deny anyone in their attempts to make peace with their sins?

When it comes to “The Irishman,” I have to say thank god for Netflix as this film would not exist otherwise. Granted, the short span of time between it shown in theaters and then being available for streaming is unfortunate as this film, like many of Scorsese’s works, deserves to be seen on the silver screen. But considering the state of entertainment today which values franchises and superhero movies above thoughtful character studies, it is sadly easy to see why no Hollywood studio would touch it. It’s a real shame as it is films like these which demonstrate the wonderful and amazing power cinema can have over us.

In many ways, this is the perfect career capper for Scorsese. While he is revisiting many themes such as organized crime, greed, destruction and redemption, he is also seeing it in a different perspective. “The Irishman” belongs on the same shelf alongside his best works, and it is one worth revisiting over and over again. I just hope the next time I see it will be in a movie theater.

* * * * out * * * *

‘Superfly’ Remake Has Little Reason For Existing

Superfly 2018 poster

The original “Super Fly” directed by Gordon Parks Jr. was a notable blaxploitation classic as it provided many advancements for African-Americans in show business. Many accused it of glamourizing the drug business and of drug dealing in general, but others saw its glorification of drug dealers as a critique of the civil rights movement’s failure to provide better opportunities for black America. Either way, it gave a lot for audiences to talk about, and it provided us with one of the greatest soundtracks of all time courtesy of Curtis Mayfield.

Now it is 2018, and we have the remake of the 1972 movie which the filmmakers have entitled “Superfly” because, you know, why separate the two words? While it made more sense to separate the words “super” and “fly” decades ago, the rules of grammar continue to change for no special reason. But while the original movie still resonates with audiences more than 45 years after its release, I walked out of this remake constantly saying to myself, what was the point? Updating a classic of any kind is one thing, but this “Superfly” has little reason to exist as it offers us the same old tale of a gangster who is looking to go straight after spending too much time in a life of crime, and it offers nothing new or fresh to this story. While it is never boring, this movie will not have the same staying power of its predecessor.

The story remains the same, but this time the action has been moved from New York to Atlanta, Georgia (or ATL as the locals like to call it). Playing Youngblood Priest is Trevor Jackson, a 21-year-old actor, singer and dancer whose taste in clothes and cars is almost upstaged by his silky head of hair. Priest has it all, and this includes a luxurious house which has a beautiful view of downtown Atlanta, a pair of loving and tough-minded girlfriends in Georgia (Lex Scott Davis) and Cynthia (Andrea Londo), and he drives around town in a super-expensive Lexus car which, unlike Ron O’Neal’s 1971 Cadillac Eldorado, needs no customization. One look at it is enough to give you an idea of how well-off Priest is to where putting a spoiler on his Lexus would just look stupid.

Yes, Priest is a career criminal who is now more serious than ever about leaving the Atlanta drug scene, but no one is about to make things easy for his departure, and this is especially the case when one particular drug deal goes horribly awry. From there, those who have seen the original “Super Fly” will not be surprised at the turns the story takes, and those who have not watched it will marvel at how convoluted things become as the remake heads to its largely unsurprising climax.

The first thing I got to say about “Superfly” is when it comes to Jackson, I cannot help but feel he is too young to play Priest. Jackson is not bad as he exhibits a natural charisma and does have the necessary aura of coolness Priest requires, but he never struck me as a gangster who has led a rough and tumble life. Instead, he looks more like someone who just entered the life to where he has yet to show off any of the scars which come with it. Alex Tse’s screenplay does make mention of how Priest started out hustling at the tender age of 11, but even with this realization, Jackson still looks like an intern who just entered this life.

The other big problem is Jackson is constantly upstaged by his fellow actors, several of whomwould have been more believable as Priest. Chief among them is Michael K. Williams, best known for playing Omar on “The Wire,” who plays Scatter, Priest’s chief drug supplier and martial arts teacher. The scene in which they spar with one another is one of “Superfly’s” best moments as their physical moves match up with their mental ones to where you can see them working out scenarios in their heads about surviving into the future. Williams has the look of someone who has worked in the Atlanta drug trade for many years, and he makes Scatter look like someone with more of a reason to retire from this life than Priest does. I think Williams would have been a better fit for the role of Priest, but I guess considerations in regards to demographics were taken into consideration here above all else.

Jason Mitchell, who was fantastic as Easy-E in “Straight Outta Compton,” steals one scene after another as Priest’s right-hand man, Eddie. He keeps you guessing as to what Eddie’s next move will be to where you constantly wonder where his loyalties lie. While Eddie seems eternally dedicated to Priest, Mitchell constantly gives you the sense he may bolt to the other side as being a supporting player in this trade can be infinitely frustrating at times, and his high energy performance is one of “Superfly’s” great delights.

Lex Scott Davis makes Georgia into a formidable girlfriend for Priest to where he needs her more than she needs him. Andrea Londo provides “Superfly” with its most alluring presence as Cynthia, Priest’s other girlfriend. From start to finish, Londo inhabits Cynthia to where she cannot be mistaken for anything other than a fierce self-provider who is more than prepared to fight to the death for her loved ones. Outkast’s Big Boi shows up as Mayor Atkins, a man whose political influence knows no bounds until Priest puts some directly in his path. And I have to single out Jennifer Morrison for her wonderfully wicked performance as the infinitely corrupt Detective Mason. She doesn’t hesitate to show far off to the dark side Mason is as she makes clear how quick she is to bend the rule of the law to her hardened heart’s content, and I could never take my eyes off her whenever she appeared onscreen.

Directing “Superfly” is Julien Christian Lutz, better known by the name of Director X. Whether or not this name is meant to define some sort of political belief I will leave for him to explain. X is best known for making music videos with Drake, Kendrick Lamar and Rhianna among others, and his trademark involves tweaking the letterbox format to where he plays with our expectations with glee. He crafts a strong opening sequence in which we follow Priest into a nightclub whose membership is clearly restricted to a select few, and it reminded me of the scene in Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” when Henry Hill and Karen entered the Copacabana nightclub through the back way. As we follow Priest into this particular nightclub, X makes it feel like an invitation into a side of life many of us never get to experience. After this sequence, everything ends up feeling inescapably routine.

There have been many gangster movies like “Scarface,” “Carlito’s Way,” “Sugar Hill” and “Light Sleeper” which depict their lives in a way which is endlessly fascinating even as the characters are looking to escape the life they were not necessarily aiming to enter. “Superfly,” however, feels stale in comparison as it offers nothing new or unique to the genre. As the movie went on, I kept wondering what the point was of remaking this blaxploitation classic. Many have said how the original glamourized crime and drug dealing, but this remake seems to do this to a shameless extent as the characters sport not only designer clothes, but designer guns which more lethal than the kind we usually see in movies. Whereas O’Neal’s Priest was moving through life the only way he knew how, Jackson’s Priest looks to live the life of the richest 1% in America as drug dealing provides what seems like an unrealistic route to it.

I cannot say I didn’t enjoy parts of “Superfly” as it is never the least bit boring, but this kind of movie has been played out too many times to where this remake serves no real purpose. After all these years, the most memorable thing to come out of the 1972 blaxploitation classic will be Curtis Mayfield’s soundtrack, and even the filmmakers behind the remake could not escape this fact as one of his songs is featured here. If there was a reason to update this story for the year 2018, this is never made apparent here. Besides, there is bigger gangster for Priest to deal with in this day and age, and his name is Donald Trump.

* * out of * * * *