Winter 2021 – Week 4 in Review

Hello everyone, and welcome back to Wrong Every Time. I’m happy to report that I didn’t just blindly munch through a bunch of horror movies again this week, and instead got to some acclaimed, ambitious films that I’d been putting off purely because they’re too damn long. I’ve been meaning to see The Irishman since it came out, and one of my housemates has been clamoring about watching Heat for months, so in the end we set aside last Sunday as our dedicated “long damn movie” marathon. Only in retrospect did we realize what we were actually watching – an exploration of Robert De Niro versus Al Pacino, in roles separated by over two decades. There’ll be other attractions to get to as well, but for now, let’s break down these two excellent films!

Our first stop was The Irishman, a film Martin Scorsese has apparently been trying to get filmed for years now, starring three of the greatest film actors in all of history: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Al Pacino. In the film, De Niro plays Frank Sheeran, an Irish-American WWII veteran who ends up working for the mob under Russell Buffalino (Pesci), head of the Buffalino crime family. Eventually, Russell introduces Frank to the head of the teamsters union, Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino) – but Hoffa’s star is fading, and eventually Frank is caught between loyalties to his two closest friends.

The Irishman slots into a prestigious Scorsese tradition, tracking associates of the mafia across long decades, in much the same way as Goodfellas or Casino (also both starring De Niro and Pesci). All of these films are terrific, in a wide variety of ways. First off, Scorsese himself is just an absurdly masterful filmmaker. His still layouts possess all the ornate beauty of something like a Wes Anderson film, with none of the twee artifice, while his camerawork is so smooth and confident that it essentially disappears entirely. And his ability to transform a novelistic narrative into film is second to none; he is able to make a lengthy and maddeningly complex narrative feel natural and propulsive, while losing none of the narrator’s personality in the process. The Irishman actually feels far shorter than its length, because Scorsese’s ability to weave in crowd-pleasing action highlights, quick jokes, and moments of powerful suspense keeps the film energetic from start to… well, to the point in his mafia tales where we stop hearing about glory days, and start hearing about retirement homes.

Scorsese’s mafia films are all tragedies, because the mafia life is a sad and painful one, laced with brief moments of triumph. Casino’s Pesci ends up getting beaten to death in a cornfield, while Goodfellas’ heroes spend their twilight years living in paranoia and decay. In The Irishman, the inherent futility of this life, and the wreckage it leaves in its wake, is clear from our opening monologue, relayed by a wheelchair-bound Frank who’s already resigned to his lonely death. Throughout the film, Frank is introduced to characters with bright smiles, then the camera will pause, with a blunt title announcing that this new character was “Shot in face eight times outside a deli, Oct 12, 1980,” or whatever other horrible end they reached. Dictated to us from the end of his life, Frank’s tale compresses time in all sorts of horrifying ways; through his gaze, we see how much he sacrificed, and how little it all came to in the end.

All of this beautiful tragedy is brought home through the outstanding performances of the film’s key cast. Robert De Niro frequently plays terrible men in Scorsese films, men who destroy everything around them in the pursuit of something just out of reach. While I could understand the alienation of someone like Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, I don’t think I’ve ever felt as deeply, personally attached to a De Niro-Scorsese protagonist as Frank. De Niro is one of the best dramatic actors in cinema, and The Irishman is one of his greatest performances I’ve seen; every ounce of pain, every sliver of regret he experiences comes through clearly, even as we know he brought all this tragedy upon himself. 

Scorsese’s Terrible Man films tend to minimize their female characters, and while that’s true enough here, Frank’s slow process of losing connection with his daughter felt palpably tragic, yet impossible to undo. In De Niro’s shadowed eyes and bitterly choked-down grief, we see a man who knows he cannot be redeemed, yet still feels regret and loneliness and love like anyone else. Meanwhile, the frequently volatile Pesci offers a subdued yet incredibly rich, alternately terrifying and vulnerable persona, while Pacino embraces the wild fire of representing Hoffa’s charisma. The Irishman is one of the best films I’ve seen in months, and stands confidently among Scorsese’s many masterpieces.

Any film would probably suffer from directly following The Irishman, but Michael Mann’s Heat was nonetheless a generally excellent watch. The film stars Robert De Niro as Neil McCauley, a professional robber who takes great care in setting up his scores, and prides himself on avoiding any attachments that might tie him down. Of course, De Niro and his crew end up spending the whole damn movie stumbling into attachments, as they are fiercely hunted by monomaniacal detective Vincent Hanna, played by Pacino.

There are elements of Heat that aren’t particularly engaging, like De Niro’s perfunctory romantic narrative, or basically the entire presence of Val Kilmer. But while you could probably shave this film down to a comfortable two hours, those remaining two hours are excellent. Both written and directed by Michael Mann, Heat’s robbery sequences are thrilling – their first halves exemplify the meticulous planning McCauley puts into them, while their second halves erupt into erratic, naturalistic violence, as his team are forced to think on the fly when things go wrong. Meanwhile, Al Pacino puts in the film’s best performance, convincingly portraying a man who has sacrificed everything for his work, yet is still desperate to hold onto his remaining family.

The film’s central relationship is between Hanna and McCauley, but it’s largely a relationship of distance – Hanna simply admiring McCauley’s intelligence, as someone who is only happy on the other side of the chessboard. The film’s brilliant centerpiece is a meeting between the two of them, where they each reflect on how much they’ve given to their work, and agree they could never live any other way. It’s a riveting scene, and a testament to the incredible dramatic power of both these actors; their ability to express nuance in expression, their ability to cogently flow from one set of emotions to another, their mastery of expressing fundamental feelings through divergent character voices, and all the other hard-earned proficiencies that make them the best in the business. It’s a thrill just watching great actors put in great work.

After that, we finished up the week with some lighter fare, including a watch of Don Bluth’s All Dogs Go To Heaven. Granted, while All Dogs is “lighter” than The Irishman, it’s still a friggin’ Don Bluth film. Having not watched the movie since childhood, I was a little surprised by the decidedly un-child-friendly turns of this narrative, from “the main character is drugged by his former partner and driven off a short pier,” to “the cast use a young girl’s Dr. Doolittle ability to fix a bunch of race bets.” Lacking much of a sturdy narrative or clear moral perspective, All Dogs proceeds as a series of lunatic setpieces and drunken sing-alongs, luxuriating in its vividly realized New Orleans But For Dogs. It’s too unfocused and uneven to be a great film, but it’s extremely weird in that way Don Bluth does best.

Finally, we did catch at least one horror film: The Void, an independent Canadian production, from the team responsible for Psycho Goreman. The Void is a gleeful throwback to Carpenter and Cronenberg’s classics, complete with a wide array of grotesque practical effects, and a story that twists in some satisfyingly Lovecraftian directions. It’s an unabashed B movie, and a highly successful one, if you can stomach some serious body horror alongside your other scares. Standing somewhere between Assault on Precinct 13, The Fog, and The Thing, it’s a loving tribute to some of horror’s best directors, and an engaging roller coaster in its own right.

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