Category Archives: Starring Al Pacino

The Irishman (2019, Martin Scorsese)

The disconcerting part of The Irishman’s actually never-ending CGI isn’t the aging and de-aging, it’s star Robert De Niro’s creepy blue eyes. For the first half hour of the (three and a half hour runtime), I was trying to get used to De Niro’s CGI… makeup, but kept having problems with it, which didn’t make sense because Joe Pesci’s didn’t cause any similar consternation. Then I realized it wasn’t the aging or de-aging, it’s the eyes. De Niro’s got these piercing blue eyes and they just don’t look right on him and you can’t look away from them, which is kind of the point.

If the eyes are the windows to the soul… well, with The Irishman, Scorsese and De Niro have figured out how to do a character study without ever letting anyone into the character. De Niro’s character, real-life teamster and confessed mob hitman Frank Sheeran, starts the film as an aimless, aging truck driver. He breaks down and happens to meet local mobster Joe Pesci, which pays off after De Niro’s gotten busted for stealing from his company—selling beef on the side to a fantastic Bobby Cannavale, apparently mid-level Philadelphia mob guy. De Niro keeps his mouth shut in court, impressing lawyer Ray Romano (also fantastic, clearly a lot of people wanted their chance to shine in the ultimate Scorsese mob picture), so Romano re-introduces him to Pesci and Pesci starts giving him work. Pesci’s playing older than De Niro (the real-life age difference was seventeen years), but the actors are the same age and so they’re in differing intensities of CGI de-aging. There is an onboarding period with The Irishman, when you’re wondering what it must have looked like on the set, with actors like Romano and Cannavale, seemingly just in some make-up, are acting opposite much older guys De Niro and Pesci, who don’t end up looking much older. Like, once it’s clear De Niro’s supposed to look like a tough Irish guy, explaining his stocky shoulders, it all just fits. All just works. It ceases being a concern and actually ends up being one of the film’s unintended pluses. The Irishman is all about aging. It’s all about the passage of time. Just not for the first act and then there’s this intentional avoiding of it for a lot of the second. It’s a long movie; Scorsese can take his time shifting the film’s tone.

But it’s also a multilevel narrative—De Niro, in a rest home, is telling his story, a very old man. Second level is De Niro telling the story of this time he and Pesci and their wives drove from Philadelphia to Detroit for a wedding. Along the way, sometimes because of visual cues, sometimes not, De Niro thinks about his story getting him to that point. We don’t find out the point of that point until much later in the film, after it’s transitioned from the middle-aged schlub (the main action starts when De Niro’s character is in his thirties but he looks much older) gets involved with the mob and tosses out wife Aleksa Palladino for cocktail waitress Stephanie Kurtzuba, which literally has no narrative impact because De Niro’s already estranged daughters immediately bond with the new wife. It ought not to work, but does because the film’s still establishing its narrative distance from De Niro. It’s not until about halfway through the movie you realize he’s not a protagonist. He’s an unreliable, willing but unenthusiastic narrator—it’s clear real quick these trips down memory lane aren’t pleasing to De Niro, at any level he’s narrating. Because once the film introduces Jimmy Hoffa everything changes. Al Pacino plays Hoffa; doing it like a comedy caricature, then making that real—the yelling finally pays off, thanks to Scorsese. The film’s already been this old mob men buddy picture between De Niro and Pesci moves on to be this De Niro and Pacino buddy flick. They hang out with their families, they have heart to heart talks, De Niro even sleeps in Pacino’s hotel suites so he’s not on the register because De Niro’s not just a teamster, he’s Pacino’s bodyguard.

The family thing is important because The Irishman’s only subplot is De Niro’s daughter, Lucy Gallina as a kid, Anna Paquin as an adult. Gallina figures out pretty quick once her dad goes from being a meat delivery truck driver to a mob hitman. It isn’t until he starts hanging out with Pacino does Gallina start liking anything about her dad’s life. She and Pacino are pals. He’s a dotting grandpa figure who buys her ice cream sundaes. Pacino and the ice cream sundaes becomes a nice detail fast.

The family thing gets important again in the third act, after the disappearance. Because at the end of all three levels of story are the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa. The third level, the main narrative, tracks De Niro basically babysitting Pacino through historical events, through the Kennedy administration’s persecution—causing a rift between the mob and the unions (the film does need some kind of a historical accuracy section in the credits just so people know how much of the completely whacked out corruption details are true), which eventually leads to Pacino’s feud with dipshit mobster and rival teamster boss Stephen Graham. Graham’s going to be Pacino’s downfall, no matter what Pesci, De Niro, or anyone else do about it. And it’s a long, drawn out, unpleasant downfall.

Because the closest thing The Irishman has to a hero is Pacino’s Hoffa. He’s far from perfect, but he does help people. If the sixties union speeches about the soulless corporations are accurate, well, would you believe things haven’t really improved in sixty years? Oh, right, we already know that.

Of course, he’s not a hero because there aren’t such a thing. There can’t be. If heroes were such a thing, guys like Pesci and De Niro wouldn’t know how to function. It would mean their world views were abjectly broken and, even if Pesci and De Niro aren’t great fans of the world… broken’s a lot.

That thread plays out later on when The Irishman ends on a starkly atheistic note, which makes perfect sense but is a little surprising. At one point, once it’s clear where they’re going, I actually thought, “we’re a long way from Last Temptation, aren’t we.” The Irishman is a perfectly aged film; it’s cumulative for its creators in all the right ways. Having Pacino do a character actor part is just the crowning achievement. For two hours and forty five minutes of the film, it’s very clearly not De Niro’s, which is weird. It seems like it’s De Niro’s. It’s literally got a Little Big Man bookend; The Irishman has got to be this great culmination. Then isn’t.

And it’s not De Niro’s movie for a long time either. It’s Pesci’s or Pacino’s or even Romano’s; De Niro costars in every one of his scenes, even the ones with Gallina and Paquin, which is something since neither of them talk for most of their scenes. De Niro’s the right hand man, even in his own story.

The last thirty minutes changes it all around and is where Irishman sort of ascends the stairs it wasn’t clear anyone was building. Once it’s clear how The Irishman’s going to go… it’s an ultimate trip.

The film goes from being a success to an achievement, with Scorsese’s direction this perfect mix of confident and enthusiastic. He takes his time establishing the filmmaking ground situation—how he, cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (and whoever CGIed locations back in time), editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and composer Robbie Robertson (doing some damn fine work, which turns out to be minimalist Morricone) are going to visualize this narrative—then starts branching out, using slow motion for sequences, using a direct exposition dump or two; it’s all very carefully executed and results in every shot being something of a surprise.

There’s a badass 2001 homage. The aforementioned “ultimate trip” is a reference to it but it deserves a callout. It’s really cool. The Irishman still manages to be really cool filmmaking, even after a 130 minutes. Scorsese’s got the juice.

Strong script from Steven Zaillian. He’s got a habit of dragging things out, which Scorsese and the actors are then able to cut lean and nimble, but it’s a questionable habit. Essential expository character development scenes are essential because of Pacino or Pesci or whatever. Not because of Zaillian.

Best performance is either Pesci or Pacino. It’s a toss-up. Pacino for turning a leading man biopic performance into a supporting part or Pesci for getting so much mileage out of a mundane bad guy. But it’s De Niro’s movie in the end. He gets that amazing finale and makes magic. With those creepy CGI blue eyes.

Supporting tier… Romano and Cannavale are the standouts; once Pacino comes in, they all become a lot less important. Sebastian Maniscalco has a great small part. Graham’s a perfect dipshit, which is good, I guess; don’t get typecast (or do). Domenick Lombardozzi’s got a significant supporting part and is unrecognizable to the point you wonder if there’s some CGI involved. He’s excellent in what’s basically the villain part. Harvey Keitel’s got an extended cameo, presumably just to bring a bunch of the gang back together.

Is The Irishman, which Scorsese would’ve preferred to title, I Heard You Paint Houses, but really should just be called Jimmy and Me (or Relating to a Sociopath), a culmination of all Scorsese, De Niro, and Pesci’s mob pictures? Yes and no. It doesn’t make an informal trilogy or quartet, because it’s a do-over. It’s Scorsese figuring out what he wants to say about that thing of theirs, made with properly aged thoughtfulness.

The most striking part of the film is the buddy flick aspect, when it’s just old men De Niro and Pacino pretending to younger old men finding an unexpected friendship. It’s really comfortable work from all involved, even though it seems like where they’d have the most problem. Cracking Pacino and De Niro’s relationship is the film’s (first) big success; basically the first and second act can get away with anything thanks to it. And the second big success, the aforementioned achievement, that one’s the third act.

The Irishman is supplanting work.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Martin Scorsese; screenplay by Steven Zaillian, based on a book by Charles Brandt; director of photography, Rodrigo Prieto; edited by Thelma Schoonmaker; music by Robbie Robertson; production designer, Bob Shaw; costume designers, Christopher Peterson and Sandy Powell; produced by Gerald Chamales, Robert De Niro, Randall Emmett, Gabriele Israilovici, Gastón Pavlovich, Jane Rosenthal, Scorsese, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, and Irwin Winkler; released by Netflix.

Starring Robert De Niro (Frank Sheeran), Al Pacino (Jimmy Hoffa), Joe Pesci (Russell Bufalino), Ray Romano (Bill Bufalino), Bobby Cannavale (Skinny Razor), Stephen Graham (Anthony ‘Tony Pro’ Provenzano), Domenick Lombardozzi (Fat Tony Salerno), Jesse Plemons (Chuckie O’Brien), Gary Basaraba (Frank ‘Fitz’ Fitzsimmons), Marin Ireland (Older Dolores Sheeran), Anna Paquin (Older Peggy Sheeran), Lucy Gallina (Young Peggy Sheeran), Louis Cancelmi (Sally Bugs), Sebastian Maniscalco (Crazy Joe Gallo), Jake Hoffman (Allen Dorfman), Stephanie Kurtzuba (Irene Sheeran), Welker White (Josephine ‘Jo’ Hoffa), Kathrine Narducci (Carrie Bufalino), Aleksa Palladino (Mary Sheeran), and Harvey Keitel (Angelo Bruno).


The Godfather: Part III (1990, Francis Ford Coppola), the director’s cut

Here’s an all-encompassing theory to explain The Godfather Part III, based only on on-screen evidence (i.e. ignoring production woes, casting woes, rewrites, budget and schedule comprises, and whatever else). Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo hate everyone in the film and everyone who will ever watch the film—maybe Coppola didn’t cast daughter Sofia Coppola in the third lead of the film because he thought she’d be good, but instead because she’d be godawful and make everyone hate the movie, which would just validate Coppola not wanting to make it in the first place. It would also explain the terrible script, full of awful exposition sequences and hackneyed scene after hackneyed scene. Godfather Part III makes Sofia Coppola and Andy Garcia’s star-crossed romance—they’re first cousins—into a fetish. They’ve both got a cousin-smashing fetish. If you want to love Godfather 3, Coppola and Puzo say, you’ve got to love some cousins bumping uglies.

Let’s not even get into when Talia Shire does a jaw drop at Garcia’s useless stud twin bodyguards and then rubs her nephew’s hands suggestively. If Godfather 3 has any subtext, it’s icky. But saying it has subtext is a stretch. Shire seems like she’s just in the movie to wear great clothes. Her performance is utterly atrocious. Of the returning cast members, Shire’s easily the worst. See, there’s nothing good about Godfather Part III. There are no hidden gems in the film. It’s not like secretly Al Pacino gives a good performance if you just ignore the terrible dialogue. It’s not like his eyes give a different performance than his words when he’s trying to rekindle with ex-wife Diane Keaton—in the twenty-one movie years between II and III apparently Pacino decided he didn’t want to raise the kids he stole from Keaton and ships them back to her and then is estranged from the kids somewhat. Keaton’s remarried (to Brett Halsey, who seems to have just met his wife and step-kids in first scene) and Pacino’s seems to have been a baching it, living with bodyguard Richard Bright (who gives the best returning performance) and hanging out with sister Shire. It’s not clear. The first act is really inept as far as establishing the ground situation.

Godfather 3 kind of remixes styles from the previous two movies—it doesn’t seem like Carmine Coppola composes a single new piece of music for the film, just recycles material from the previous ones, as director Coppola just recycles dialogue and scenes. It all echoes, the film bellows: Don’t you remember when you loved this.

But then Coppola and Puzo grossly veer as far as characterization. Pacino doesn’t have a character. He’s got a caricaturization, not even of the character from the previous films, but of himself since then. In really bad make-up. They’re only aging Pacino ten years but the way he dodders around, shuffling, kind of glassy-eyed, it’s like the makeup person was going for seventy-five and stoned. It’s really, really, really hard not to feel bad for Pacino throughout Godfather Part 3. People remember the first one for Brando, the second one for De Niro; here, Pacino gets to be the whole show—or should be—and director Coppola instead gives all the big material to his daughter, who must give one of the worst performances in a film budgeted over fifty million dollars before 1994. It’s humiliating.

Because Pacino’s not terrible. He’s doddering, he’s pretty dense—it’s unbelievable he’s a successful anything, gangster gone businessman or gangster pretending to go businessman—the same goes for Garcia, who goes from driving a car, shooting people, yelling, picking up young girls, then picking up his cousin to being a criminal mastermind. Of course, given the mob plot in this one involves Pacino wanting to buy a huge corporation from the Vatican and the Vatican going to war with Pacino but there’s also something with Joe Mantegna as the mob guy Pacino gave the old neighborhood. Mantegna and Garcia hate each other. Garcia’s Pacino’s illegitimate nephew (and if you’re expecting a great Pacino blow-up scene after Gracia seduces Sofia Coppola, dream on; though at least Pacino disapproves, Keaton’s all for the first cousin—they bring it up to confirm–smashing). Eli Wallach plays an old mob friend who somehow wasn’t in the first two movies even though he obviously should’ve been; he’s got an agenda of his own. If you’ve seen the second movie you can figure it out pretty quick because they use the same music cues.

Speaking of the second movie, evidently the reason Pacino’s a big sweetheart now is because he feels so bad about killing his brother in the second movie. Coppola rolls that footage in the first ten minutes of the movie, clearly it’s important. Only it’s not because Pacino hasn’t got enough character for it to affect anything. Wait, wait, it does. I forgot: Franc D’Ambrosio. D’Ambrosio is Keaton and Pacino’s other kid (sadly, no, he and Garcia don’t bang too). The reason Keaton comes back into Pacino’s orbit is because she wants to support D’Ambrosio dropping out of law school to become an opera singer. See, D’Ambrosio knows Pacino had his favorite uncle killed in the last movie and wants nothing to do with him. Except in all those scenes where he hugs Pacino and tells him how much he loves him and how much he wants Pacino’s approval and blah blah blah. Until the last twenty minutes, it’s hard to get too worked up about Sofia Coppola’s performance because for as terrible as she gets, D’Ambrosio is just as bad. Coppola looked at Keaton and Pacino—who actually dated back on the second movie—and decided if they had kids, those children would grow up to give terrible performances in the worst sequel (compared to previous entries) of all time.

The complete disconnect between D’Ambrosio’s first scene and every subsequent one? It gets to be a natural feeling in Godfather 3. A lot of scenes feel reshot, even if they’re not. Like maybe Keaton and Pacino weren’t really on set at the same time for this one. Same goes for Sofia Coppola and Andy Garcia. They’ve got a couple scenes where it really doesn’t seem like they’re talking to anyone else. It’s hard to tell, because Coppola directs the film like a TV show. Instead of doing a two shot in a conversation, he’ll cut between close-ups. It’s really, really, really bad composition. Like so much in the film, it’s embarrassing.

So Pacino’s greatest success is not appearing visibly humiliated. Keaton just seems defeated. She’s terrible. The writing on her character is real bad. All the writing on characters is real bad. But Keaton is way more in Shire territory than not.

Garcia’s okay. Sort of. It’s not his fault. Also the James Caan impression stuff is stupid.

Sofia Coppola’s performance is singularly terrible. Can’t be repeated enough.

Oh, right. The supporting cast. Besides George Hamilton, who has squat to do in the film, everyone is pretty bad. Hamilton’s not good, but he at least seems excited to be in a Godfather movie. He shows up and tries. Mantegna and Wallach don’t try. Wallach just gets worse the more he’s onscreen. The Vatican Eurotrash villains—Donal Donnelly and Enzo Robutti—they’re awful too. But for different reasons. Coppola doesn’t really bother directing the actors. He must be too busy setting up terrible shots, which all have variously poor establishing shots. Gordon Willis’s photography is something dreadful, but it’s impossible to blame him. Somehow it’s got to be Coppola’s fault.

So what’s left… Bridget Fonda? She’s got an extended cameo to get in some male gaze. She’s not good. But she’s nowhere near as problematic as anyone else, even Richard Bright, just because she’s not in the movie long enough to get worse scenes. The longer you’re in Godfather 3, the worse your scenes get. Except maybe D’Ambrosio, who frequently gets completely forgotten because no one cares. He’s not banging Garcia, after all.

The scary part is it could be even worse. You can just tell. Coppola could have made an even worse film.

There is one nearly good scene in the film where Coppola lets Pacino try to feel out an honest emotion. It seems like it ought to be a scene in a film called The Godfather Part III. None of the other ones do. The rest of it feels like Puzo and Coppola really wanted to do a Vatican conspiracy thriller and shoehorned in the Corleone Family, with the cousin sex for dessert.

I don’t loathe Godfather 3, I just dread it. Every one of the 170 minutes after the first just promise something else dreadful.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Francis Ford Coppola; screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, based on characters created by Puzo; director of photography, Gordon Willis; edited by Lisa Fruchtman, Barry Malkin, and Walter Murch; music by Carmine Coppola; production designer, Dean Tavoularis; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Al Pacino (Don Michael Corleone), Andy Garcia (Vincent Mancini), Sofia Coppola (Mary Corleone), Talia Shire (Connie Corleone Rizzi), Eli Wallach (Don Altobello), Diane Keaton (Kay Adams Michelson), Richard Bright (Al Neri), Franc D’Ambrosio (Anthony Vito Corleone), George Hamilton (B.J. Harrison), Joe Mantegna (Joey Zasa), Bridget Fonda (Grace Hamilton), Raf Vallone (Cardinal Lamberto), Donal Donnelly (Archbishop Gilday), Helmut Berger (Frederick Keinszig), Don Novello (Dominic Abbandando), John Savage (Father Andrew Hagen), and Vittorio Duse (Don Tommasino).


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Glengarry Glen Ross (1992, James Foley)

The first half of Glengarry Glen Ross is phenomenal. David Mamet’s screenplay is lightning fast during this section, moving its characters around, pairing them off for scenes or moments–the brevity is astounding. Half the movie is over and it feels like just a few minutes. Then the second half hits and the pace is still good, but the energy is different. It meanders. Apparently the only thing keeping director Foley going was having different locations and different camera setups–many questionably framed for pan and scan; in the second half of the film, set entirely on one set, Glengarry Glen Ross starts to fizzle. The actors keep it viable for as long as they can, but then it becomes clear Foley’s just composing for one actor, one performance, not all the actors, all the performances. The film never solidifies and it’s so fast, it’s almost over before it becomes clear Foley’s not going to bring it together. He instead relies on James Newton Howard’s peppy smooth jazz score. It’s never a good idea to rely on smooth jazz, peppy or not.

Every performance in Glengarry Glen Ross is outstanding. Foley’s problem isn’t giving the actors time to act, he does fine with that aspect of his directing. Sure, even in the first half, he isn’t directing their scenes perfectly, but he’s definitely giving them room to act. Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, Ed Harris, Kevin Spacey, Alan Arkin, Jonathan Pryce, Alec Baldwin. They’re all great. Pryce and Baldwin don’t have particularly great parts, but they’re great. Baldwin gets a big speech, which he nails. Pacino, Lemmon, Harris and Spacey get the meatier parts (Spacey the least, Harris and Pacino just through force). Lemmon’s the lead for most of the film. Only not so in the second half, which Mamet might be able to cover if Foley knew how to stage the second half. He avoids doing an adaptation of the play–Glengarry Glen Ross was a play first, also by Mamet–for the first half, only to be forced into it in the second half and have no idea how to do it. Arkin doesn’t get much meat, but he still turns in a great performance. The performances are impeccable.

And impeccable performances, along with strong dialogue, keep the film going for quite a while. There aren’t even any danger signs until Harris and Arkin’s subplot in the first half, when Howard E. Smith’s editing seems to be elongating and distracting their conversations instead of curating and appreciating them. Glengarry Glen Ross isn’t a mystery. There’s a mystery in it–sort of–and Foley stumbles when trying to integrate it. All the humanity in the film is from its actors essaying the screenplay. None of it comes from the filmmaking itself, which is a big problem.

Again, Pacino, Lemmon and Harris are all phenomenal. None of them have great characters to work with–they have some great material, but not great characters. As an example of excellent acting, Glengarry Glen Ross works. As a film? Not so much.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by James Foley; screenplay by David Mamet, based on his play; director of photography, Juan Ruiz Anchía; edited by Howard E. Smith; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, Jane Musky; produced by Stanley R. Zupnik and Jerry Tokofsky; released by New Line Cinema.

Starring Al Pacino (Ricky Roma), Jack Lemmon (Shelley Levene), Alec Baldwin (Blake), Alan Arkin (George Aaronow), Ed Harris (Dave Moss), Kevin Spacey (John Williamson) and Jonathan Pryce (James Lingk).


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Serpico (1973, Sidney Lumet)

There’s a strange disconnect between director Lumet and actor Al Pacino on Serpico. The film, at least in how Pacino plays it, is a character study. Yes, it’s a character study of someone in a great deal of transition–Pacino’s cop, over twelve rather poorly paced years, goes from idealism to resignation at the corruption he encounters–but it’s still a character study. Pacino’s performance is all about how his character is changing. It’s an amazing performance.

But Lumet presents Serpico as something of a shortened epic. It runs just over two hours, which really isn’t enough for the epic study of political machinations and indifference, especially not since the first hour deals with Pacino becoming a hippie. The hippie stuff is practically enough for its own movie and is where Lumet seems to want to go with that character study feel.

And the first half has this sweeping music from Mikis Theodorakis, sometimes overwhelming the dialogue. The second half, when Serpico is all about the police corruption stuff (and it does move better in this half), is missing the music. It’s missing the lyricism. Instead, it’s all grit, which Lumet can do and do well–though Arthur J. Ornitz’s outdoor photography is nowhere near as good as his indoor–but there’s nothing to it. Pacino’s still going through this transformation, but no one else is along for the ride.

Excellent supporting turns from Barbara Eda-Young, John Randolph, Tony Roberts.

The film just doesn’t live up to Pacino’s performance.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Sidney Lumet; screenplay by Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler, based on the book by Peter Maas; director of photography, Arthur J. Ornitz; edited by Richard Marks and Dede Allen; music by Mikis Theodorakis; production designer, Charles Bailey; produced by Martin Bregman; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Al Pacino (Serpico), John Randolph (Sidney Green), Jack Kehoe (Tom Keough), Biff McGuire (Captain McClain), Barbara Eda-Young (Laurie), Cornelia Sharpe (Leslie) and Tony Roberts (Bob Blair).


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