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Archive for the ‘Robert de Niro’ Category

The Irishman

01 Dec

The Irishman—direct by Martin Scorsese. Crime Drama. 3 hours 29 minutes Color 2019.
★★★★★
The Story: An agèd Mob hitman/thug/bodyguard recalls his professional life as the favorite sponsee/liaison of two big business potentates, one a union leader, one a gangland don.

Robert DeNiro plays the leading, title, and starring role here, Frank Sheeran. What he learns from the first mentor, the don, played by Joe Pesci as Russell Bufalino, don of the Buffalo Cosa Nostra, is mastery of keeping the peace both in himself and between warring factions. What he learns from the second, Jimmy Hoffa, the head of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the largest union in the world and played by Al Pacino, is to urge such peacekeeping on his volatile boss every minute of the day.

The picture unfolds at 3 ½ hours but never stalls, never bores, never repeats.

It is essentially a string trio for viola, with Pacino playing the violin, Pesci playing the cello, and De Niro the viola. Despite its chamber-work-compression of instruments, its scale is widespread in its localities, while remaining detailed in those settings. It holds forth all over the country on the one hand, and on the other it counts on intimate closeups of the three stars. We range from the gigantic to the particular with no conflict of style. This is because the development of relations is forefront at all times and throughout.

As to the acting, that is another story. Pacino and DeNiro never play their characters. Despite the blue eyes, you never believe De Niro’s character’s background is Irish/Swedish from Pennsylvania. You never believe Pacino’s character’s background is Irish/German midwestern. Both of them present as lower-class New York City Italian first-generation, with accents and mannerisms to match.

As such, each of them uses the same acting techniques and styles they have developed and employed for upwards of 50 years. No concession is granted to the parts they play in terms of nature, class, region, or background. This has partly to do with their understanding of the limitations and securities of their basic techniques, and partly to do with the denial of Method Acting Training to emphasize language or voice training of any kind for actors.

On screen, De Niro and Pacino are not like Frank Sheeran and Jimmy Hoffa. For such is not within their talent and interest. Rather Frank Sheeran and Jimmy Hoffa are like Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. So Pacino and De Niro in those parts is not a matter of acting at is greatest reaches. It is a matter of casting. Their performances present zero surprises. As character actors give Pacino and De Niro an F. As movie star actors give them an A+.

For they engage their roles, if not their characters, full bore. As an audience you fully set aside their lacks, overcome as you are by the strength of their technique, its torrent and delicacy. Pacino thrusts his Hoffa forward with every eccentricity at his muster, and you go along with it because it is required for us to witness Hoffa as not just difficult, but so difficult as to be impossible, and so impossible as to be doomed. This sort of acting is the hand Pacino has dealt himself under the table for years.

Right before our eyes, likewise, De Niro, ever since The Deerhunter, has lodged into his face that rictus which he wishes us to be taken for stress, eyes aglare with threat, corners of the mouth drawn down. Nonetheless, it provides his Frank Sheeran with the cover and restraint necessary for the crises he faces, and it gives to his loyalty the black shiny surface of honest patent leather. It also gives him the cover to perform that impressive phone conversation, executed quite properly with the trick of making it hard for him to breathe. Struggling for breath would happen to any of us thus circumstanced, the whole body almost closing down to survive what against its own nature he must avow in that call.

Of the three, Joe Pesci’s playing as the Godfather, god-father, and god/father is different from the volatility one associates with Pesci’s work in the past. None of that former crazy, wild, out-of-control rashness is on view. Every hint of danger and unpredictability is reduced to just one wild horse in the corral instead of a herd of them. Careful, just, reasonable is what he gives us, and his is the best performance of the three, because not only are the character and actor Italian so his physical metaphor works, but his conviction, common sense, and kindness have the enormous carrying power of the subtle. You look into his eyes, and you understand everything his character does and must do. Pesci’s Russell Bufalino does nothing out of evil, cruelty or meanness, but only for what is best for business, that is to say for the protection and benefit of the largest group of people.

Indeed, you might say that The Irishman is the secret files of the personnel departments of two big businesses. You might think this would be tedious. It is fascinating, because of Scorsese’s treatment of the material, his attention to detail and to his sticking to what he knows best—and his ear for it.

The principal defect of the picture and what accounts for its length lies in the failure of the script to distinguish what hit-men do. They eliminate people in advance of or in response to revenge. Or they eliminate people who are in the way. We do not see this distinction made in the film because so much attention is given to revenge-hits, whereas Hoffa’s disappearance was an instance of the latter. He was a mad dog threatening a whole village. He was in the way.

For, towards his end, Hoffa threatened Union hegemony and the conduct of its vast pension funds. He didn’t see what a threat he was both to union business and to Mafia business or recognize what the Mafia would do about it.

Big business directs the story as a whole. But The Irishman is a story worked out in terms of the relations between its three main characters. All three have big hearts. At the end, the business story and the plot of these big-hearted relationships converge to make the crisis. But it stops short. The crisis is never developed.

There is a scene missing.

The crisis is simple:

Can you murder your best friend?

Is is kinder to put your belovèd ailing dog out of its misery or should you let unfriendly disease slay it?

Nonetheless, while a dog may be man’s best friend, your best friend is not a dog.

Can you murder your best friend?

Is it better that Frank murder Hoffa because, according to the code, it is more loving, it is more honorable, it is more loyal?

Hoffa/Pacino is in the way.

As the servant of two masters, will De Niro remain loyal to his best friend, Pacino, or will he remain loyal to his father, Pesci?

Can you actually hold a gun and deliver two shots to the back of your best friend’s skull?

Can you murder your best friend?

The writer and director have not seen this complex matter plain. And without the focus of a great confrontation scene fully mounted, the film lacks a KO and spreads itself into 3½ hours.

And, without it, The Irishman falls short of the great category of a high tragedy which is its proper sphere.

(Although, if it had attainted high tragedy, it is possible that De Niro does not have the talent to perform it.)

Still the film is worth seeing, because every scene, every shot is choice. If Scorsese has failed to tell his drama well, Scorsese has not failed to tell his story well.

As for the rest, Anna Paquin is telling as the daughter who sees through the lie of Frank’s life. She’s underused in the part, which would be the central for the scenes left out.

And it’s lovely to see Harvey Keitel at work again.

The movie is beautifully cast, produced, acted, and set.

Who does not bow before editor Thelma Schoonmaker has neither manners nor sense.

Also praise be to those who aged and youthened the three men’s faces as time planed or chiseled them. None of this bothered me or detoured my attention. I invite everyone reading to a like infatuation.

For Scorsese has not just dealt a hand of cards. He has dealt four hands. And they are beautiful, as one by one he plays them out, card by card, before our eyes so privileged to see them.

 

The Bridge Of San Luis Rey

07 Feb

The Bridge Of San Luis Rey – directed by Mary McGuckian. Drama. 120 minutes Color 2004.

★★★★

The Story: In a trial for his life, a 17th Century friar presents his findings on the coincidence of seven people plunging to their deaths when a suspension bridge collapses.

~

The presence of Robert De Niro as the archbishop of Peru disqualifies the story. He does not have the acting instrument to perform the role, which requires Shavian mentation of inquiry and debate. Nowhere in this piece does he seem feasible.

The others do just fine, and their good work validates our presence before them. Geraldine Chaplin is excellent as the kind Mother Superior who connects all of them. Gabriel Byrne touches one as the soft-spoken friar on trial for possible heresy.

Kathy Bates, an actress difficult to cast correctly, finds herself well placed as the richest widow in Peru, but clearly a parvenu from the shopkeeping class. She moves through the vast structures of cathedral and palace like an elephant in full regalia. Dressed like a pavilion, she performs one rich scene of unexpected eccentricity after another, and the script gives her the only fully realized character in the piece.

As her relative, uncle Pio, our beloved Harvey Keitel is perfectly cast as a theatrical entrepreneur, a man who owns nothing, and loves fixedly.

F. Murray Abraham has, as the vice-ridden Viceroy Of Peru, a part he can finally sink his sharp teeth into. This is the sort of play that actors like better than audiences. There is grand argumentation. Elocution is required. Wit is a priority. Intelligence of style is appreciated. Abraham is an actor of classical gifts, and what a treat it is to see him perform with them.

Dominique Pinon is excruciatingly exact as the Viceroy’s fop. He brings a surge of comic vitality to the film whenever he appears, shrewd, quick, and big hearted.

Pilar López de Ayalaila speaks perfect English, and is a very good actress, but lacks the high temperament, unique sexual personality, and special feminine voice of the actress La Perichola. It is the key role. She unites them all, drives them all, kills them all. But she is not able to convince us of what others see in her. The not-to-be-topped Anna Magnani played a version of her in The Golden Coach of Jean Renoir in 1952. Nazimova, Joan Loring, Blanch Yurka, Akim Tamiroff, and Louis Calhern played it in the 1944 film. There is a 1929 version, part-talking, with Lily Damita.

The original is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Thornton Wilder, which may be still readable today, who knows? I have read it and liked it, but it wasn’t yesterday that I did so.

 

American Hustle

04 Jan

American Hustle – directed by David O. Russell. GrifterFlic. 138 minutes Color 2013. ★★★★★

The Story: Complications pile on complications as the characters of the characters execute and sabotage and execute and sabotage themselves and each other in a super-sting operation.

~

Everyone has phony hair. And yet the motto of these dodgers is, “From the feet up!” meaning everyone has to be authentically committed to the ruse at hand.

False hair’s a wonderful image, redounding on each character’s flaws as the story unfolds. Bradley Cooper has tiny pin-curls to make his black straight hair curly and cute. Jennifer Lawrence has a baroquely streaked blond coif, always in flirtatious display. Amy Adams has ringlets manufactured down to and included in her décolletage, which is always arrayed for us, and, in its bra-less excellence would, we fear, be on array upon her presentation to The Queen. Jeremy Renner’s pompadour has a pompadour. And Christian Bale has a comb-over so complex it requires a combination. “From the feet up” – means until-but-not-including the crown of the head, which, of course, leaves everybody uncommitted.

The story is told in big long fully developed scenes that you can glom onto and relish, and the writer/director lodges the story not in plot but in the plot’s being directed by the divergences of each main character’s character. Jennifer Lawrence, in a particularly well-written role, makes her contribution by always being right by making everyone else wrong, doing one thing and saying another. Amy Adams levels her battleship intelligence on the false target of swindling her way into love. Bradley Cooper is shredded by his own intensity, which is blind. Jeremy Renner, the only sympathetic character among the bunch, loses his way in the byways of honest ambition. And Christian Bale, who is not quite on target with his character, is shot in the foot with his own rifle – which is firing blanks. As an actor he alone misses the innocence of his character, and innocence is important for all these fools, because, as Oscar Wilde said (and Oscar Wilde  was never wrong), “It is always wrong to be innocent.”

Is the story too complicated to follow? No. Is it engrossing? Yes. Does it have its legitimate surprises? Yes. Does it betray its audience’s credulity? No. Is the story well and unusually and strongly told? Yes. Are the scenes daringly played? Yep. Do you experience being entertained? Yes. Are you seeing some of the best acting in your life? Absolutely. Does it stick to your ribs into the lobby? No. Have you wasted your time? No.

2013 is strong year for male performances, and Jeremy Renner and Bradley Cooper look good here. And so do Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence. The cast is great, but as ensemble, since there are few ensemble scenes to speak of, that is not the draw, but, performance by performance, you can’t do better. And the whole shebang is wonderfully and humorously told. It is one of several important GrifterFlics this year: The Wolf Of Wall Street runs side by slippery side with it in local theatres. See ‘em both. Tell ‘em Bruce sent ya.

 

Silver Linings Playbook

01 Feb

Silver Linings Playbook – directed by David O. Russell. Family Drama. A Bipolar nut strives to reunite with his two-timing wife, and on the way meets up with a young promiscuous widow. 122 minutes Color 2012.
★★★★★
The preposterous notion that Love Conquers All is the Hollywood byword that rules this story, and we root for it as soon as ever we can, don’t we, well-trained poodles that we are!

The trouble is that the hero is an insane person, and it is never possible to link oneself to such a character, for two reasons: they are hopeless and they are annoying.

However, sanity sets in when another insane person crosses his path and they join forces on a project of physical dance, which grounds them and frees them.

Behind all this lurks the equally crazy figure of his father played in his usual way by Robert De Niro who is a bookie and a Philadelphia Eagles nut, glued to the superstition that his coo-coo son is his rabbit’s foot. De Niro provides a much needed comic leavening, and his wife, played superbly by Jacki Weaver provides the foundation in real emotion and common sense to the proceedings.

The two crazies are played superbly by Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, but, of course, we cannot really take them seriously as humans until the dance practice begins and their self-centered ranting ceases.

However, while the film is beautifully directed and written up to that point, it collapses in both departments from that point on, and we are asked to appoint our credulity to the task of swallowing all sorts of unnecessary improbabilities in their romantic squabbles. It can’t be done. We choke.

What does work is the lengthly scene in which De Niro and his gambling partner work up a parley on the outcome of the Eagle’s game and the dance competition. This is highly suspenseful, beautifully performed, and fun. And besides we want Love To Conquer All, so we set aside our disbelief and our sense of the certainty that when love fades in color, madness will return fuelled further by the red truth that Love Betrays All.

But at least it’s given the opportunity to conquer. In Hollywood, Love is Rocky Balboa racing up a monumental flight of Philadelphia stairs. What is found at the top is The Hall Of Justice. Which we have no idea is standing there in wait for us.

 

The Little Fockers

11 Jan

The Little Fockers – directed by Paul Weitz – low comedy in which an Irish don hands over his mission in life to his Jewish son-in-law.   120 minutes color 2010.

* * * *

This is Abey’s Irish Rose as a movie. That most long running and now long forgotten of all plays and radio shows was about the Jewish boy who married a Colleen. Same here. In those days, back in the 30s and 40s, the conflict was based on immigrant wars, the Kikes against the Micks, the stubbornness of the territorial and cultural and religious protectorates of the tribes who had just or almost just come here – and intermarried. West Side Story is musical version of it. But here we have as befits the theme a series. This is the third, and there is nothing wrong with it at all. You have a fine cast. Barbra Streisand plays her usual self-pushing self. Laura Dern does the chilling principal of a fancy modern school. Owen Wilson is the clueless sybarite best friend. Dustin Hoffman is the fool Jewish father. Harvey Keitel is a the bellicose earth-mover. Blythe Danner is the elegant mother of the Irish don. What brings the movie down is that Robert de Niro is no more an Irish don than a plate of spaghetti is. He takes off the shelf his generic technique and mugs and moues throughout the piece. And there is some cause, it is true, for we are looking at low comedy here. But it is Ben Stiller who carries the piece. What a marvelous player of comedy he is. Has anyone noticed that yet? How subtle he is? How intricate in his response? How real? Check out the moment when he accepts the honor from de Niro; he has taken on the hero’s fullness; he simply asks his son to eat his food; the child vomits on him. But the vomit is not what’s funny. What’s funny is Stiller’s barely discernible inflation. The piece ends in a branagan at a child’s birthday party, a fight which is unconvincing, since no one seems to notice it, but that is the fault of the crudeness of the script, a script which is sometimes quite witty. I enjoyed myself. But then, in asking for so much, I accept so little.

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