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 * * * *

How Taxi Driver Forever Changed The Way I View Movies

While “Goodfellas” introduced me to the filmmaking brilliance of Martin Scorsese and became my all-time favorite movie, it was “Taxi Driver” which really shaped the way I view movies today. Before seeing it, I always tried to avoid those movies which would make me sad or were too dark. This was a result of my parents having to carry me out of “Star Trek II” and “E.T.,” both of which I cried so hard over to where others wondered if I was okay. I promised myself I would never put my family through such embarrassing situations ever again, and this was especially the case with my brother who was constantly annoyed at my emotional outbursts.

Unlike “Goodfellas” which was immensely entertaining and had great comedic moments, “Taxi Driver” is dark, dark, dark. There is nothing the least bit glamorous to see here as we watch the main character of Travis Bickle (played by Robert De Niro) get continually sucked into a corrupted environment he deeply despises. I kept hoping for him to achieve sort of redemption and maybe, just maybe, have another chance with Cybil Shepherd’s character of Betsy whom he had a memorable first date with. But as we reach the movie’s bloody conclusion, I realized there was nowhere for Travis to go but down. While the reaction to his actions may have been surprising, we all know the truth about Travis and realize something will set him off again before we know it.

Once the end credits went up, my dad asked me what I thought about “Taxi Driver.” My initial reaction was it was not exactly enjoyable. My dad’s response to this has always stayed with me, “Not all movies are meant to be enjoyed. Some are meant to be experienced.”

Looking back, I see what he meant. Look, there are a lot of reasons to not make a movie about someone like Travis Bickle; he’s seriously nuts, not a good date if you want to go to the movies, and watching him lose his mind is painful. But the thing about “Taxi Driver” is people like Travis exist, and turning a blind eye to their existence does us no good. We need to understand why people do the things they do. It’s like what Roger Ebert said in his review of the film:

“Scorsese wanted to look away from Travis’s rejection; we almost want to look away from his life. But he’s there, all right, and he’s suffering.”

With “Taxi Driver,” I came to see how you need these kinds of movies just as much as you need the average escapist entertainment. Some movies need to shine a light on the darker parts of human nature to remind us we need to acknowledge we have a dark side and realize we have more in common with Travis Bickle than we would ever care to think or admit.

Since watching “Taxi Driver,” I have become completely open to movies which disturb me or take me on a journey I would not necessarily want to endure in real life. I can’t stand to watch films in a passive manner. I want to be moved by what I see, be disturbed and shaken, and even weep. Movies are too powerful an art form to be made just for the sake of entertainment. There are so many things about the human existence which deserve to be captured on celluloid, and I believe audiences crave these kind of cinematic experiences as they do the next Marvel movie.

“Taxi Driver” is my second favorite movie of all time, right behind “Goodfellas.” It is a movie I admire above so many others, and I still watch it from time to time. There are many I get sick of watching, but this is one I will never tire of sitting through.

Joker Movie and Blu-ray Review

The following review was written by Ultimate Rabbit Correspondent Tony Farinella.

If you had told me “Joker” would be the best film of 2019, I would have looked at you a little funny.  Truth be told, I’m not the biggest fan of comic book or superhero movies.  I understand I’m in the minority here as they are extremely popular and make billions of dollars.  Personally speaking, I find them hard to get into, and I have difficulty suspending my disbelief in certain cases.

So, what is different about “Joker?”  Well, it does not play like a comic book movie.  Instead, it plays more like a character study and drama as we learn how the Joker became the Joker, and it does so in a way which is unnerving, challenging and brutally blunt.  That is how I like my movies.

Joaquin Phoenix should win an Oscar for his portrayal of Arthur Fleck, and he might be well on his way after winning a Golden Globe.  He lost a lot of weight for this performance, but it’s more than just the physical transformation.  It’s also the looks he gives and the emotional power he brings to the role.  Now a lot of controversy surrounded this film when it was released as people were worried the tone and nature was going to inspire other people to behave in a similar fashion as the Joker.  One interviewer even asked Joaquin Phoenix a question about the film potentially inspiring mass shooters.

Now I understand we live in sensitive times, and I am very aware and respectful of other people’s feelings.  A lot of bad things have happened over the past two decades, and we can’t ignore any of that.  However, when it comes to blaming video games, television or pop culture for these things, I find it is a rather far-reaching theory.  Film can be used in certain instances as a way to entertain, educate and inform us.  “Joker” is merely commenting on what is happening in the world today, and this is even though it is set in 1981.  You can’t help but see the parallels between what is happening in the film and what is happening in the world right now.  After all this time, there is still a marked division between the haves and have-nots.

Arthur is down on his luck in life even though he is trying his best to put on a happy face.  He lives with his sick mother (Frances Conroy), who is obsessed with Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen).  She used to work for him and keeps writing him letters, hoping he will respond and help them out.  When Arthur is out on the streets twirling signs as a clown, he gets beat up by a group of young punks, and it appears no one has much sympathy for what he endured.

He can’t catch a break with his therapy sessions either as he feels as though his therapist is not really listening to what he has to say. People also judge or feel uncomfortable around him because he has a condition where he has uncontrollable laughter, sometimes in inappropriate moments.   He’s on a number of medications (seven in fact), but none of them seem to be making him very happy.

Every night, he watches the Murray Franklin Show with his mother. Robert De Niro plays Murray Franklin, the wisecracking late-night talk-show host. Arthur hopes to one day be on the show as a famous stand-up comedian.  It is his dream. The film does a great job of showing how someone on that many medications can have severe side effects and difficulty figuring out what is reality and what is fiction.  I enjoyed the fact the film did not spoon-feed everything to the audience.  In many cases, you are not sure what is really happening or what is in Arthur’s head. The film tackles how difficult it is to get the proper funding for mental health treatment.  It is about someone who has been completely ignored and rejected by society.

Arthur is doing his best to put on a happy face, but the world around him is getting more and more out of hand each and every day.  Whenever he turns on the news, there is another gruesome or horrible story.  It makes him wonder what his purpose in life is and what is going to become of him.  How will he survive in this world?  He’s doing everything he believes to be right and fair, but the world is spitting him up and chewing him out.

This is when the real Joker is revealed after Arthur’s had enough and can’t take it anymore.  It’s up to the audience to decide what it all means and what’s the truth of the matter. Even Thomas Wayne can be looked at as a Trump-like figure if you want to go there.  I picked up on certain things I felt director Todd Phillips was sprinkling in throughout the movie, but I don’t know his true intentions.

“Joker” is the best film of 2019 much to my surprise.  It is supremely well made, intense, and it left me wanting more.  The film does leave the audience with more questions than answers, but this is a good thing.  We don’t need everything tied up together at the end of the film.  This is not that type of movie.  A lot of critics have compared it to 1970’s cinema and also “The King of Comedy” and “Taxi Driver.” It is the kind of film which is most definitely worth watching again and again because there is a lot to digest and unravel.  The musical score by Hildur Guðnadóttir, which also won at the Golden Globes, really sets the dark tone and mood of “Joker.”

Joaquin Phoenix is perfect as Arthur Fleck/Joker.  Without him, this film does not work.  I have not seen a performance which stayed with me like this in a long time.  At times, he’s sympathetic, and you feel empathy for him.  At other times, you are disgusted by his actions and his behavior.  This is not a one-dimensional character.  This film took a lot of balls to make, and it also took a lot of balls on the part of Phoenix to make the choices he made in this film.  “Joker” is a masterpiece of cinema, and it is easy to see why it is the first R-rated film to make one billion dollars at the box office.

* * * * out of * * * *

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Blu-Ray Info: “Joker” is released on a two-disc Blu-ray combo pack from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment.  It has a running time of 122 minutes and is rated R for strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language and brief sexual images. It comes with the Blu-ray, DVD and a digital code as well.

Video Info: “Joker” is released on 1080p High-Definition on an aspect ratio of 1.85:1.  The film looks absolutely perfect on Blu-ray.  It has an old-school look to it while also looking crystal clear at the same time, which is exactly what the film needed to look like.

Audio Info: The audio for the film is presented in Dolby Atmos-TrueHD: English, English Descriptive Audio, and Dolby Digital: English, French, and Spanish.  Subtitles are also in English, French, and Spanish.  The audio is superb.  Once again, the score by Guðnadóttir is hauntingly eerie, and spot-on for the film.

Special Features:

Joker: Vision & Fury

Becoming Joker

Please Welcome… Joker!

Joker: A Chronicle of Chaos

Should You Buy It?

In the end, what Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix pulled off in “Joker” is simply stunning and mesmerizing.  This is not hyperbole here.  This film and everyone who participated in it deserves all of the praise they have received.  It is also great to see appearances by Marc Maron, Brian Tyree Henry and Bryan Callen sprinkled into the film along with a very stellar supporting performance by Robert De Niro.  It would have been nice to see more of Zazie Beetz in the film, but she does a lot with her limited screen time. She’s a pivotal part of the movie, especially the more you think about it.

A lot of people can probably relate to how Arthur feels and everything he is going through in life.  Of course, you don’t agree with his actions in the film, but you can understand it in the context of the film and this character’s state of mind.  That is the important thing to remember here—this is a film.  No one should ever go out and do any of this. I have to make that crystal clear.

You should buy this film as soon as you can! This is the kind of film you want to add to your collection because it is only going to get better with age.  It is an adult drama/character piece which is perfectly done.   The special features are a little light in terms of length, but maybe that was done on purpose.  The filmmakers don’t want to show all of their cards.  This film comes highly recommended from yours truly. It blew me away in the cinema, and I had the same reaction watching it at home.

Martin Scorsese’s ‘Hugo’ is a Splendid Love Letter to the Power of Movies

Hugo movie poster

Maybe it was Martin Scorsese’s desire to utilize the 3D format which kept me from seeing “Hugo” on the first day of its release. 2011 saw 3D movies get a serious public beating as audiences became convinced it existed solely for Hollywood studios to jack up ticket prices. But to watch “Hugo” is to be reminded of how amazing 3D can be when using the right tools and not just throwing cheap gimmicks at the audience. But moreover, it is backed up by a great story and remarkable performances as Scorsese shares with us his love of all things cinema.

Seriously, the first five minutes of “Hugo” will blow you away as you will feel like you are traveling over the Paris of the 1930’s. It truly looks as though the snow it is literally blowing in your eyes, and it reminded me of when kids were grasping at the snowflakes coming off of the silver screen during “The Polar Express.” Scorsese was lucky enough to use the same Fusion Camera System which James Cameron used to superb effect in “Avatar.” The images stretch out from the screen, and the extra dimension gives these visuals a depth which at times feels remarkably real.

Based on the novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick, Asa Butterfield stars as Hugo, a young boy living alone in a Paris railway station while maintaining the clocks and stealing whatever supplies he needs in order to survive. One major obstacle he has to deal with is Inspector Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen) who patrols the station with his vicious looking dog. Gustav shows no hesitation in picking up orphans and sending them straight to the orphanage which, in the kids’ eyes, seems like an unforgiving house of horrors.

Two people come to play an important role in Hugo’s life: the toy shop owner Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley) and his spirited goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz). They enter Hugo’s life as he continues to work on fixing an automaton he and his father, Mr. Cabret (Jude Law), were putting it back together in working order when Mr. Cabret was tragically killed in a museum fire. It is this same automaton which will draw these three together in ways none of them could ever have imagined.

By taking us back to a time when motion pictures were in their infancy, effects we now see as cheesy and simple to create come to feel as magical as they once did. Scorsese is brilliant in putting us into these characters’ shoes as we watch audiences react strongly to a film with a train which looks like it is coming straight at them, or at Buster Keaton hanging on for dear life from a clock outside a tall building. Looking at the awe which is so vivid in the faces of these children reminds us of how movies can magically draw us into another world, and this is a feeling many movies do not give us these days. In this day and age, we take the power of motion pictures for granted.

Butterfield’s performance is remarkable. Showing the pain and resourcefulness of a young boy who has lost his parents and is forced to fend for himself is no easy task, and he ended up giving one of 2011’s most underrated performances. Butterfield inhabits the character of Hugo so deeply to where, after a while, it does not feel like we are watching a performance at all.

Kudos also goes to Moretz, the star of “Kick Ass” and “Let Me In,” for adding yet another superb role to her already splendid resume. As the adventurous Isabelle, she pulls off a flawless English accent which is worth noting as we have gotten so used to actors screwing them up. The warmth of her smile onscreen is utterly genuine, and she lights up “Hugo” whenever it feels like it is getting a bit too dark.

There are other great performances to be found in “Hugo” as well. Ben Kingsley is fantastic as usual as Georges Méliès, and the late Christopher Lee has some wonderful moments as bookshop owner Monsieur Labisse. One of the big standouts in the supporting cast though is Sacha Baron Cohen who takes a break here from his “Borat” and “Bruno” mockumentaries as Inspector Gustav. He’s a hoot throughout, and his interactions with the infinitely lovely Emily Mortimer (“Lars and the Real Girl”) who plays Lisette are hilariously sweet.

Scorsese has put together a truly beautiful motion picture which deserves a bigger audience than it received while it was in theaters. The fact that more people went to see “Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked” than this is deeply depressing. A lot of moviegoers really hated 3D movies back in 2011, so this did not do “Hugo” any favors. But after watching it, you will find yourself believing this extra dimension is worth your money when it is put together by the best masters of filmmaking.

* * * * out of * * * *

Exclusive Video Interview with Jonas Carpignano about ‘A Ciambra’

A Ciambra” was Italy’s official submission in the Foreign Language Film category for the 90th Academy Awards, and it was made in the heart of the country’s Romani community. A gritty coming of age story, it follows Pio Amato, a 14-year-old boy who is eager to grow up real fast. Pio spends his days smoking and drinking as well as following his older brother Cosimo (Damiano Amato) around town while learning the skills needed for survival in their hometown. While tensions between the different factions, the Italians, the African immigrants and his fellow Romani, remain high, Pio is able to slide through each in a way few others can. When Cosimo is arrested one night, Pio is quick to convince everyone he is more than ready to fill his older brother’s shoes and take care of things. But as the movie goes on, he wonders if he is truly ready to become a man.

“A Ciambra” was written and directed by Jonas Carpignano whose previous film, “Mediterranea” won various awards including Best Directorial Debut from the National Board of Review and the Gotham Award for Breakthrough Directing. What he has succeeded in doing here is giving us a motion picture which makes you feel like you are hanging out with these characters instead of just watching them from a distance. Carpignano combines biographical elements with documentary style filmmaking to give us something we experience more than anything else. There are not many movies like this one these days, and I will take them wherever I can get them.

Carpignano spent his childhood between Rome and New York City, and he currently lives in Italy where he continues his filmmaking endeavors. He was in Los Angeles to talk about “A Ciambra,” and it was a pleasure taking with him about how he went about making the film with non-professional actors. In addition, he spoke of what it was like to work alongside Martin Scorsese who is the film’s executive producer and of the most valuable piece of advice the “Goodfellas” director gave him.

“A Ciambra” opens in Los Angeles at Laemmle’s Royal Theater on February 2, 2018. Be sure to check out the interview above as well as the movie’s trailer below.

A Ciambra poster