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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

After a lot of publicity surrounding the digital de-aging of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman has arrived on Netflix (it remains on some local movie screens, too), and it’s a very good offering from the auteur. It has a few problems, but the opportunity to see De Niro, Pacino and Joe Pesci in a movie together under the Great One’s tutelage more than overrides the shortfalls.

The film is based on a book about Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran (De Niro) called I Heard You Paint Houses, which is actually the name of the film in the opening credits. Sheeran was a labor-union official and occasional hitman who had ties to Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). The film, like the book, claims that he was the actual triggerman in the assassination of Hoffa.

The film covers a lengthy time span: We see Sheeran from his 30s up until shortly before his death in his 80s. He’s played by De Niro throughout—and the much-ballyhooed digital de-aging is mostly a bust. There are moments when De Niro looks perhaps a tad younger than 76, his actual age (he might pass for 58), but it always looks like bad makeup, dye jobs and funky lighting rather than high-tech effects at work. Plus, these digitally enhanced, oddly smooth faces have old voices, and are on bodies with stiff postures.

Distracting effects aside, De Niro, Pacino and Pesci are amazing, no matter what age they are depicting. Scorsese has made a nice companion piece to his gangster epic Goodfellas (I consider Casino one of his few missteps); this is an ugly depiction of the loneliness and alienation that results from things like shooting your friends in the head.

Goodfellas had a rather likable, and unintentionally funny, antihero in Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill, but none of the main guys in this movie are likable. Sheeran, in particular, is terrible; De Niro depicts the guy as a meathead, a lackey who takes orders from the likes of Pesci’s Russell Bufalino and Pacino’s Hoffa. Sheeran is quietly despicable and evil at his core.

Pacino gives the film a little fun as a blustering, ice-cream-obsessed Hoffa. He’s also the angriest guy in the movie, with Pacino sinking his teeth into many opportunities to go from zero to 100 in mere seconds. Pacino shares a couple of scenes with Stephen Graham as Anthony Provenzano, one of the men suspected of participating in Hoffa’s eventual disappearance in 1975. Pacino and Graham square off in a way that goes right into the “Best Pacino Moments” time capsule.

The film has an epic scope; it’s 3 1/2 hours long, so I suspect there will be a lot of pausing for bathroom and snack breaks due to its presence on Netflix, and that’s too bad. I think Scorsese should’ve put an intermission in the middle, perhaps choosing a preferred moment for the viewer to gather themselves up for the film’s great finale.

Seeing De Niro and Pesci sharing scenes again—speaking Italian and dipping bread in wine—is a holiday season cinematic gift like no other. This is De Niro’s best work in years, and Pesci gets a chance to play a subdued role in a Scorsese flick, which pays major dividends. He depicts Bufalino as a quiet, polite and extremely dangerous man, and it’s mesmerizing.

With the decade coming to a close, The Wolf of Wall Street remains Scorsese’s best effort of the 2010s—but that’s more high praise for Wolf than a put-down of The Irishman, which is a fine film, even if it comes up short of being a masterpiece. If this is Scorsese and De Niro’s final film together, they are going out on a high note.

The Irishman is now streaming on Netflix. It’s also playing at Mary Pickford Is D’Place (36850 Pickfair St., Cathedral City; 760-328-7100) and the Palm Desert 10 Cinemas (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-340-0033).

Published in Reviews

Joker, a new take on DC Comics’ Clown Prince of Crime, will go down as one of the year’s big missed opportunities.

Director Todd Phillips, best known for his Hangover movies, apparently got the green light to do whatever he wanted with the Joker mythos. In a feat of perfect casting, he managed to get Joaquin Phoenix to sign on for the title role. This was a chance to tell a dark origin story from Joker’s point of view.

Phillips blew this chance. Phoenix is otherworldly good as Arthur Fleck, a severely troubled clown and standup comedy wannabe (and momma’s boy) with a condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably at inappropriate moments. Phoenix physically and mentally disappears into the part—to the point where it’s reasonable to become concerned about the actor’s well-being.

He accomplishes this in a film that has a major identity crisis, in that it wants to be a DC movie utilizing a DC icon without really being set within DC lore. Could that have worked out OK? Sure, but the movie builds to a conclusion that frustratingly teases, but only teases, the great Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns graphic novel. Why not do a film that tells the story of The Dark Knight Returns entirely from the Joker’s perspective, instead of dancing around Batman lore in a way that feels like the filmmaker is merely trying to be cute and clever? The experience of watching this left me unfulfilled. Phillips borrows many elements from comic books, Bernie Goetz, Death Wish and Martin Scorsese movies, resulting in a muddy work that feels oddly rote given the crazed and wonderful performance at its center.

When we first see Fleck, he’s dressed as a clown, spinning a sign and generally having a good time. He promptly gets his ass kicked; we then see him in therapy and living in poverty with his quirky mother (Frances Conroy). Fleck slowly but surely starts to lose all sense of his humanity as he grows into a criminal monster.

We’ve seen all of these plot mechanizations before, in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. Heck, Phillips even casts a game Robert De Niro to play a talk-show host who winds up being a nod to Miller’s David Letterman riff, David Endocrine, in The Dark Knight Returns. At its most derivative, the screenplay echoes A Beautiful Mind, filmed in a way that feels like a hackneyed Shyamalan twist.

Is the violence too much? That depends upon your personal threshold for fake mayhem in movies. I, for one, was appropriately shocked at times by how visceral the movie got; it goes well beyond your typical Avengers movie or the playfully crazed violence of something like, say, Deadpool. The violence in this movie is ugly and extremely downbeat; it will leave you with knots in your stomach.

Phoenix does a thing with the hysterical laughing early in the movie, where he shows Fleck struggling because it hurts his throat and challenges his smoker’s lungs. As the film progresses, it appears that the Joker’s hysterical laugh muscles are strengthening—as if in training for his criminal career when that laughter will cause no pain, and flow out of him with no need for lozenges afterward. Touches like these, as well as the depiction of Gotham as a city reminiscent of pre-Giuliani New York City in the 1970s (I assure you folks, that place was a hellhole), are impressive.

This impressive work is done in by paint-by-numbers plotting. Fleck’s standup comedian aspirations don’t make a whole lot of sense; they simply make for a convenient plot device to reach the movie’s predictable finale. Everything to do with Fleck’s mother plays like a poor man’s Psycho. For a movie that was supposed to be an entirely original approach to the Joker, nothing really feels original other than the spark of creativity Phoenix brings to the enterprise. It’s boringly familiar.

Joker won the Golden Lion for Best Film at this year’s Venice Film Festival? That voting panel must’ve been on mushrooms.

Joker is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Robert De Niro delivers a good performance in The Comedian, a film from director Taylor Hackford that doesn’t match the great actor’s prowess.

De Niro plays Jackie Burke, an aging standup comedian dealing with a TV-sitcom past he isn’t too proud of. De Niro does a nice job playing a Don Rickles-type old-school comedian. He’s not entirely hilarious, but he’s convincing in his standup sequences. He’s also good when Jackie is off stage being an ornery bastard.

The film lets him down in its handling of modern-day things like viral videos and reality TV. Hackford’s take on modern media is woefully out of touch, and De Niro finds himself stranded in some rather ridiculous, tone-deaf scenes.

Leslie Mann is her usual great self as a younger woman Jackie winds up trying to romance; the two actually make a convincing almost-but-not-quite couple. Harvey Keitel is a little overbearing as Mann’s dad, but Danny DeVito scores as Jackie’s bemused brother; it’s the best work he’s done on the big screen in many years.

For everything that works in this movie, there are two things that don’t, so De Niro’s solid work is ultimately wasted. There are lots of cameos from standups like Richard Belzer, Hannibal Buress, Brett Butler and Jimmie Walker.

Yes … Jimmie Walker is still alive.

The Comedian is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Joy is a goofy and uneven yet entertaining showcase for Jennifer Lawrence, who delivers a fun and strong performance as the title character.

Joy has a tough life, with a mother (Virginia Madsen) addicted to TV, and her divorced husband (Edgar Ramirez) and father (Robert De Niro) sharing her basement. She’s working crap jobs—but an idea for a revolutionary mop gets her onto TV and eventually changes her life.

Director and co-writer David O. Russell reunites with his Silver Linings Playbook star, and the results are a bit strange, to say the least. Lawrence puts the proceedings over the top with the sort of commanding performance that has become routine for her. De Niro has fun in his standard dad role; his roles in David O. Russell films are his best in years.

Isabella Rossellini gets her best role since Blue Velvet as the De Niro character’s rich girlfriend who finds herself bankrolling Joy’s mop scheme. Bradley Cooper barely registers as the TV executive who gives Joy her break, although that has more to do with his lack of screen time rather than the power of his performance.

It’s a good ensemble in service of a movie that is a little beneath them—but it all comes together for something that is worth seeing for the talent involved.

Joy opens Friday, Dec. 25, at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Talk about your blown cinematic opportunities. Man, this should’ve been fun: Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro, riffing on their iconic boxing characters Rocky Balboa and Jake LaMotta, have one last boxing match. It sounds to me like the setup for something great, nostalgic and even funny.

Instead, director Peter Segal managed to make this undertaking a morose, unfunny slog. Stallone plays an unhappy character, while De Niro plays a total jackass. Their characters wind up in a scenario that gets their almost 70-year-old bodies into the ring for a rematch 30 years after their last fight. Alan Arkin and Kevin Hart are wasted in supporting roles.

The fight itself is OK, with both men looking fit for their age. However, everything leading up to that fight is oddly paced, and sometimes painful to watch, especially when Kim Basinger is on screen as a confused love interest.

Stallone and De Niro show the more negative, unappealing aspects of their once-great characters. While they aren’t named Rocky and Jake in this movie, those characters are certainly on the brain. De Niro should’ve allowed his character to be a little more punchy, and Stallone should’ve shot for something a little more lovable and virtuous. Both performers seem truly lost, as if they signed up for a fun movie and discovered it was depressing.

This seemed like a sure thing, but Segal blew it. This counts as one of 2013’s biggest movie disappointments.

Special Features: You get an alternate opening and some alternate endings; some extras with Stallone, De Niro and Hart; and some fun with Mike Tyson, Larry Holmes and Evander Holyfield. The extras are much better than the movie.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Director David O. Russell continues his impressive roll with American Hustle, a semi-comedic look at the notorious 1970s Abscam scandal.

Russell is shooting for Scorsese-style glory here, and while the style of the movie seems copied at times, there’s no denying the power of the ensemble cast. Bradley Cooper scores laughs as a pathetic FBI agent looking to make a name for himself, and Christian Bale looks great with a comb-over as the conman forced into an alliance with the law. Amy Adams gets one of the strangest roles of 2013 as a con artist pretending to be British; she pulls it off quite nicely.

Jennifer Lawrence steals every scene she’s in as a seemingly dim Long Island housewife, a role for which I thought she deserved an Oscar. The film scored nominations for Lawrence, Cooper, Bale and Adams among 10 total nominations—yet it didn’t take home a single award.

Also worth noting: Louis C.K. is hilarious as Cooper’s field boss. C.K. canceled a show for which I had tickets make this movie. I was pissed but, after seeing how good he is here, I’m OK with it now.

The film falls a little short of greatness due to the fact that it seems copied at times, but the cast pulls it out of the fire. It also has the best usage of Robert De Niro as a bad guy in many years. I keep forgetting that De Niro was once the greatest actor on planet Earth; with this film, and his terrific turn in Silver Linings Playbook, De Niro seems to have found a great director in Russell.

It’s a good time, but it ultimately feels a tad unoriginal.

Special Features: There’s a bunch of deleted and extended scenes, along with a making-of featurette. Not much to enjoy.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Grudge Match should’ve been really fun. Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro—riffing on their iconic boxing characters Rocky Balboa and Jake LaMotta—have one last boxing match. It’s a setup for something great, nostalgic and even funny. Instead, director Peter Segal manages to make this undertaking a morose, unfunny slog.

Stallone plays a generally unhappy character, while De Niro plays a total asshole. Their characters wind up in a scenario that gets their near-70-year-old bodies into the ring for a rematch 30 years after their last fight. The fight itself is OK, with both men looking pretty fit for their age. However, everything leading up to the fight is oddly paced, and sometimes painful to watch, especially when Kim Basinger is onscreen as a confused love interest. Alan Arkin and Kevin Hart are wasted in supporting roles.

This seemed like a sure thing, but Segal blew it. The film takes itself too seriously, and it doesn’t know when to smile.

Grudge Match is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

David O. Russell continues his impressive directorial roll with American Hustle, a semi-comedic look at the notorious 1970s Abscam scandal. Russell is shooting for Scorsese-style glory here, and while the style of the movie seems copied at times, there’s no denying the power of the ensemble cast.

Bradley Cooper scores laughs as a pathetic FBI agent looking to make a name for himself, and Christian Bale looks great in a combover as the conman forced into an alliance with the law. Amy Adams gets one of the strangest roles of the year as a con artist pretending to be British—and she pulls it off quite nicely. Jennifer Lawrence steals every scene she’s in as a seemingly dim Long Island housewife. You also get Louis C.K. as Cooper’s field boss. (He canceled a show for which I had tickets to make this movie. I was pissed then, but after seeing how good he is here, I’m OK with it now.)

The film falls a little short of greatness due to its sometimes carbon-copy feel, but the cast pulls it out of the fire. It also has the best usage of Robert De Niro as a bad guy in many years.

American Hustle is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

The Family tries to be many movies at once—and none of them are any good. The result is an overcooked mafia comedy laced with jarringly inappropriate violence and jokes that only its writers would enjoy.

The Family wants to be a comedy, but it isn’t funny. At times, it wants to be a scary and realistic take on mafia life, but it lacks tension. It also wants to be a family drama, but none of its characters can be taken seriously. It also boasts an over-stylized, fairy-tale quality that makes the undertaking a weird, unbalanced experience.

Robert De Niro plays Giovanni, a mafia hit-man who has ratted out his co-workers and has been relocated with his family to Normandy, France, where he receives a new name, Fred Blake. His wife, Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), daughter, Belle (Dianna Agron of Glee), and son, Warren (John D’Leo), all seem rather forgiving of Fred’s past evil ways, and take to their new town with varying degrees of acceptance and criminal behavior.

De Niro has mined this sort of material before with Analyze This, and its sorry sequel, Analyze … Oh Stop It, Already! While he went with parody in those movies, he plays it straight and mellow in this one—except for when the plumber tries to screw him over; then he goes into Travis Bickle mode, with the sort of violence that doesn’t feel appropriate in a stylish comedy.

Perhaps the biggest film in the early portion of Pfeiffer’s career was Married to the Mob, and her Maggie character is essentially a replay. The thick New York accent and eye-rolling here reminds of her past glory, but they do little to make this movie original or intriguing. It’s a shame, because Pfeiffer is an interesting actress who isn’t getting very many good roles these days.

Agron’s portion of the movie is the most annoying and discordant. Her character is a high school virgin who is looking to lose it to a young man studying to be a teacher. She’s capable of breaking your ass with a tennis racket if you try to take advantage of her, and she’s a hopeless romantic who thinks suicide is the answer when a man rejects her. She’s also a crack shot with a handgun when mobsters show up. She’s a whole lot of things—and none of them make a lick of sense.

As for D’Leo, his story involves dealing with bullies at school. He hatches some sort of plan involving sports trading cards that never gets spelled out, and finds himself in trouble for stuff that is never made clear. Like Agron’s character, his story arc feels incomplete, misguided, unfulfilling and far from funny.

There’s a dopey subplot involving Giovanni and his yearning to be an author. He’s writing some hackneyed novel/memoir that raises the ire of the agent assigned to watch him (Tommy Lee Jones, who acts as if he’s in a movie that is supposed to be serious).

At one point, the people in their small town invite Giovanni to some sort of film-society screening to give commentary on a movie. That movie winds up being Goodfellas—which should’ve provided a chance for De Niro to perform some good self-parody. Instead, Besson blows this opportunity: The moment winds up feeling desperate and muted.

There are some other little nods to American mobster movies and TV shows that also don’t work. Vincent Pastore shows up as a character named Fat Willy. Pastore, of course, played Big Pussy on The Sopranos. So instead of being a large vagina, he is now a big dick.

Besson has done good (Léon: The Professional and The Fifth Element) and bad (The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc and this) as a director. I’ve come to the conclusion that he is a better visual artist than a complete storyteller. When he puts words to his visuals, they don’t match—and his formula really doesn’t work when applied to a giggly mafia story.

The Family has an identity crisis. The performances aren’t half bad. In fact, you could argue that De Niro and Pfeiffer are actually quite good in the thing. Unfortunately, they are slaves to a script that doesn’t know what it is trying to say—and a director more interested in a film that’s pretty rather than coherent.

The Family is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Jennifer Lawrence won the Best Actress Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook, which was released on Blu-Ray and DVD yesterday (April 30), but the best performances in this movie are delivered by Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro.

I don’t mean to knock Lawrence by saying this; she’s quite good in the film. It’s just that Cooper and De Niro (who were both Oscar-nominated) are a little better.

Cooper plays a man recently released from a mental hospital who is looking to get back with his wife, despite the fact that she has a restraining order against him, and despite her complete lack of interest in his existence. De Niro is on hand as his dad, a superstitious gambler who wants his son to watch football with him, not because he wants genuine father/son time, but because he believes his son provides good luck.

Enter Lawrence as a recently widowed woman living nearby; she’s an equally troubled person who pretty much forces Cooper into her life. The two wind up hanging out much to his chagrin, and eventually find themselves in a dance competition.

It’s much better than it sounds.

Cooper, Lawrence and De Niro all manage to portray people with mental problems while avoiding clichés. Each makes his or her character sympathetic, sometimes tragic, and even a little funny at times.

Director David O. Russell always manages to get great ensemble work (Flirting With Disaster, Three Kings, The Fighter), and this film firmly establishes him as an elite director.

Lawrence is great here, but I would’ve tossed the Best Leading Actress Oscar at Naomi Watts for her work in The Impossible. Cooper was even better, but I would’ve given the Best Leading Actor Oscar to Daniel Day-Lewis (who did indeed win it) and Hugh Jackman before him. However, considering who was nominated alongside De Niro for Best Supporting Actor, I think Bobby D. should’ve gotten his third Oscar.

Special Features: Good movies often have good deleted scenes, and such is the case with this Blu-ray release. You get a bunch of deleted scenes, including an alternate ending, and many of them were worthy of the film. You also get some decent behind-the-scenes stuff and interviews.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing