Silence in The Irishman

I’ve only watched Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman twice all the way through and neither time have I been fully able to unpack or digest all that it signifies. The movie is another highly romanticized trip through mobster territory for Scorsese — or is it? In portraying Robert De Niro’s mob hit man, Frank Sheeran, as a remorseless killer whose unquestioning obeying of orders ultimately destroys him, it also seems to condemn the genre Scorsese helped popularize in the first place. In spirit, it’s closer to The Godfather Part III than GoodFellas — which is not a bad thing.

At the end of Godfather III, cruel Mafia overlord Michael Corleone finally gets comeuppance for everything he’s done over the course of three movies, including assassinating his own brother for crossing him. He’s plotted and schemed and sent his henchmen to their deaths. He brought to ruin the very family that his beloved father struggled so valiantly (and vainly) to protect — even if said family did consist of a bunch of damn mobsters. After witnessing the murder of the person closest to him — his own daughter — Michael ends up old and alone, powerless, blind, feeble. Only dogs are there to see it when he falls over dead. End of movie. Tragedy writ large.

Sheeran’s fate is not so dissimilar. He has spent the entirety of Scorsese’s long, long, LOOOOOOOOOOONG movie (probably the longest I’ve ever sat through) taking orders from Mafia chieftain Russell Bufalino (the invaluable Joe Pesci), even knocking off his own best friend, Jimmy Hoffa (Oscar-ready Al Pacino), because, well, orders. Frank does not, in his heart of hearts, wish to kill Hoffa, but he owes Russell his total allegiance and goes through with the hit — even though it’s like a dagger through his own heart. The rest of the movie deals with the aftermath of Hoffa’s murder and the effect is has on Sheeran in his old age.

Sheeran seems unable to refuse a Mafia order. He goes through the movie walking up to guys and plugging them. Scorsese neatly summarizes Sheeran’s devotion to his job by giving us a montage in which Frank throws gun after gun into a river, the bottom of which is filled with disposed-of murder weapons. The neat effectiveness of Sheeran’s method — you simply walk up to the guy and shoot him three times and never stop walking — is shown again and again. He seems to have no choice. One wonders what Sheeran would do even if he did feel that he had a choice. Would he stop killing?

Frank is, quite simply, a slave. He kills without question. The only answer to any problem is murder. Russell can order a hit without even verbalizing it; in one scene, Pesci squints at De Niro, and that’s it, a man’s fate has been sealed. How does Frank feel about any of this? The movie won’t say — except for one insightful moment toward the end, when a priest straight-up asks Frank. The old hit man responds, without a hint of regret, that he feels nothing. He’s not sorry at all. “Well … except for one.” We know he means Hoffa.

There is one scene early in the movie that might feel superfluous (I’ll admit, a few of them do) but essentially sums up the message about Frank. In it, Frank, as a WWII soldier, orders two German POWs to dig a hole. It’s clear he’s going to bury them in it. “Why did they keep digging,” Frank reminisces, “if they knew they were going to die?” Later, we realize that that’s Frank’s curse — he keeps digging his own grave, unable to stop, knowing he’ll be buried in it. (Sure enough, he shoots the unarmed Germans, setting up a career of murder.)

The movie has stirred up quite a bit of unearned controversy over its portrayal of Frank’s daughter, both as a child and an adult. Peggy Sheeran regards her father with cold, silent contempt. The controversy has arisen over the number of actual spoken lines the character has over the course of this long, LOOOOOOOOONG movie. There are about seven. Does this mean that Scorsese is a sexist?

Of course not. Peggy is the only character in the whole movie — in the entirety of Frank’s life — who sees Frank for what he is, and, crucially, disapproves. Even Russell sees that Peggy will have no truck with the evil with which her father associates. In one scene, he calls young Peggy over for a lame joke about “birdies” and practically begs to know if he can “do anything” for her. She refuses and walks away. Frank shame-facedly apologizes, but it’s clear he feels the sting of her rejection. Peggy sees through their charade of normalcy — the bowling and the car trips and the tense evening meals — knowing that her father is a bad man and letting him feel her disapproval with each icy stare.

Yes, Peggy only gets seven lines, but her role in the film is crucial, and her silence defines Frank’s fate. He ends up alone in a nursing home, confined to a wheelchair, living with his memories … and with silence. Peggy’s unwillingness to buy into his act as someone who “just wanted to protect” her is a judgment, an act of damnation. Frank’s inability to make the correct choice — to question or outright disobey an order — is the hole he has dug for himself. At the end, there is no one there to see him fall in. Like Michael Corleone, he has allowed his own toxic masculinity and his blind obedience to an evil “trade” to destroy him. It hasn’t destroyed Peggy — she at least escapes with her soul — but it eats like a poison at Frank through the remainder of his sad days.

The Irishman, or I Heard You Paint Houses

The Irishman — AKA I Heard You Paint Houses — is one of the best movies of the year and a certain nominee for Best Picture, Actor, Supporting Actor, Director, Screenplay, and quite possibly visual effects. It is one of those rare but enjoyable pairings of Martin Scorsese and his acting muse, Robert De Niro, but also has the dual (and equally rare) distinction of pairing De Niro with the OTHER great actor of his generation, Al Pacino, who has almost never been better than he is here as Jimmy Hoffa. Add to this firepower the luring of the great character actor Joe Pesci out of retirement for yet ANOTHER mob movie with De Niro and Scorsese, and you have a can’t-miss entertainment.

This movie takes all these fantastic ingredients and piles them onto a Forrest Gump-esque tale of a not-too-bright mob enforcer who sort of bumbles through a few of the more major events of the past 50-60 years, acting on the orders of “old-school” Mafia bosses to bring down such a figure as Hoffa, and helping (perhaps unwittingly) to influence such events as the Bay of Pigs invasion and (possibly) the assassination of JFK. This is an epic, ambitious, at times confusing, not always clear, but always entertaining entry in the Mob Movie pantheon of the great Scorsese, who does some of his finest work here.

The Irishman has been a long-in-development film that depends on the use of de-aging technology to tell is decades-spanning story. De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino (as well as, quite possibly, co-stars Harvey Keitel and Ray Romano) are de-aged to their 20s and 30s and then aged forward again with the use of traditional hair and makeup techniques and sheer acting prowess. I will say that the gimmick of transforming De Niro (in his late 70s) to his early 20s and then again to his mid-40s is a bit too gimmicky for its own good … there are several scenes in which we are painfully aware that there is something not quite right about the way De Niro looks and moves, as if his face were somehow transposed onto a different actor’s body. But that’s where we’re at with the technology, and the acting is so damned good — and Scorsese’s use of the device so assured  — that I’m willing to go along with it. Without this technology, we probably would not have The Irishman at all — at least, not with these actors, doing what they absolutely do best.

It is a huge pleasure to watch Robert De Niro play a mob hitman. He did it so gracefully (and powerfully, and menacingly) in GoodFellas, and he has been so great in other Scorsese films (The King of Comedy, Casino, Taxi Driver) that they all sort of roll up into one performance — it is hard not to think of De Niro without thinking of Scorsese, and vice versa. De Niro’s Frank Sheeran is another hard, closed-off man, not unlike the characters he played in other Scorsese films. Sheeran, at the beginning of this long (long, loooooooooooong) film is in a nursing home, recounting his days as a Mafia enforcer at the beck and call of a “gentleman” named Russell Bufalino, played De Niro’s great longtime foil Pesci. After years of mob hits and other acts of brutality, Sheeran is assigned to work alongside Hoffa (Pacino) as reliable muscle, applying his ruthless physicality to acts that benefit the charismatic UAW leader. These three characters — Sheeran, Bufalino, Hoffa — form the heart of the film and are so well-played by De Niro, Pesci and Pacino that we forget we are watching actors in a movie. We are living alongside these guys through the storms of history.

And yet we are constantly aware that we are watching these three great actors — probably the greatest who ever lived — working together in the same film, and it is exhilarating. Aside from getting caught up in this absorbing tale of business, greed and criminality, we are watching these three guys bounce off each other in the manner they were born to, under Scorsese’s watchful, exacting, creative eye. Scorsese knows how to deploy De Niro, et al, so perfectly that The Irishman achieves perfection even in the face of its own somewhat daunting flaws.

Chief among them is its length. This is quite possibly the longest movie I’ve ever sat through, and by about the third hour, I was beginning to feel it. Extreme length is no rare thing for movies like this — Heat, Scarface, and of course the Godfather pictures, as well as Casino, clock in at 2.5 to 3 hours — but the difference here is that Scorsese slows down time to draw things out. The Irishman is intentionally long and eschews the flash and dazzle that made Casino, say, so much fun to watch. I cannot say that this movie is fun. It is made with care, affection, and attention to detail, and it has many outstanding individual scenes and moments. But taken as a whole, it takes Scorsese forever to reach the final scenes, in which Sheeran seems to be getting what he has coming to him. (And even then, it ends inconclusively.)

The film is tragic and has plenty of scope, but it isn’t about the visceral thrill of BAD GUYS KILLING BAD GUYS, which pretty much defined GoodFellas. The Mafia chieftains are sad about the fact that people must occasionally be killed. There is glee to the executions in GoodFellas and Casino (which has the infamous scene of Pesci crushing a guy’s head in a vice). Here we feel the weight of history as Sheeran carries out his orders without thought or question.

Another flaw comes from the title of the film itself — the marketing makes a point of retitling the film from the book’s title, I Heard You Paint Houses, to The Irishman, but the opening title card uses the original title (very effectively, I should add). At the end of the movie, both titles share the screen! What’s up with that? The book’s original title would have been great as the film’s title, as well. This waffling on the part of the producers  — including Scorsese himself — seems distracting. Why not just stick with either/or?

Then there is the de-aging process itself. Simply put, I can tell that there’s something funny going on with the actors’ faces. The effect is done about as well as it can possibly be done, but here’s the thing — Scorsese is using the same technology that he has complained about Marvel using (his “it’s not cinema” argument). My question is, rather than use such a distracting (and potentially disastrous!) technique, why not either have different actors playing the same role (as De Niro and Brando did in Godfather) or cut down on the overall scope of the screenplay? Did we need 20-year-old De Niro in a scene showing Sheeran cutting down German soldiers during the war? Probably not. The Irishman, then, is ambitious to a fault.

But, hell — how does one complain when the movie is this rich, this extraordinary? I could easily see the entire compliment of actors and craftsmen winning Oscars — all well deserved. Scorsese’s only real competition will probably be Tarantino for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and my sneaky suspicion is that this is Tarantino’s year. (His movie was bigger, splashier, somewhat edgier, more fun, less dependent on CGI — and does not carry the stigma of Netflix). The Irishman could legitimately be called too long, and accused of visiting territory that Scorsese has, admittedly, gone over before. I’d say that his winning Best Director is something of a long shot.

Not so the acting. De Niro and Pesci are all but guaranteed nominations. De Niro proves once again why he has the reputation as best actor in the business. He’s done some shit movies over the last 20 years — Meet the Fockers, ladies and gentlemen? — but his Frank Sheeran is a performance that ranks among his greatest. The moment Scorsese’s roving camera finds him seated in that wheelchair in the old folks’ home, addressing the camera from somewhere deep in his memories, we know we are watching Seventies-era Great De Niro.

Pesci dials it down from his RAVING MAFIA LUNATIC roles in Casino and GoodFellas (or from any other movie in his career), portraying Bufalino as the kind of guy who talks softly but carries a big stick. Russell never actually kills anybody himself but has others do the deed for him, which is the real mark of power. Pesci doesn’t have to rant, or threaten anyone with a gun — he’s the guy on top, not the littlest fish in the pond, but the biggest. He gets a lot of good scenes, but the best is when he silently gives Frank a command to kill a guy for touching him — there’s just a shot of his face, glowering, and Frank nods, understanding.

Pacino gets the showiest role as Hoffa, a titanic figure in American politics (and crime), who disappeared without a trace in 1975. This movie does no less than purport to know (via Sheeran) what happened to Hoffa — how he died, who killed him, why it all happened, and what was done with the body. Scorsese takes his time setting up this scenario, explaining it, and letting it happen. We are shown, step by step, the entire process of the hit. I can only say that the fate of the character played by Pesci in GoodFellas was an obvious template for Scorsese here. Pacino gives his all to Hoffa, turning in a performance that’s as good as any he’s ever done. He shifts effortlessly from the LOUD PACINO of Heat to the quiet schemer he immortalized in The Godfather. Amazingly, it’s all of a piece — his Hoffa is a new creation played by an actor with perhaps more tools in his toolbox than even De Niro. This is the performance I hope is rewarded with an Oscar.

Finally, the movie settles down into a sad examination of a man’s final days in a retirement home. We see Frank picking out his own casket, selecting the tomb in which he is to be interred. He uses a walker and finally is confined to a wheelchair. He prays aloud with a priest, knowing that the punishment of old age is nothing compared to the judgment that is still to come. The final shot is haunting, especially when we reflect that De Niro himself is close to Sheeran’s age. For all we know, the actor isn’t even using any makeup or prosthetics to play Old Sheeran. Our heroes have fewer great movies left in them — one reason why The Irishman, for all its flaws, deserves to be seen.

 

 

 

 

Scarface

When I was 13, I made my first attempt at watching Brian De Palma’s Scarface on HBO. I’d heard plenty about the movie and was excited to finally get to watch it, but I didn’t make it far. About 15 minutes into the movie, the chainsaw massacre occurs, and as this was the age Prior to Internet, I had no idea it was coming.

The chainsaw lowers into the guy’s skull, and the blood flies, and that was all I could take. The grisly death was more than I could handle. It was a decade before I resumed watching it!

Today the chainsaw massacre seems fairly tame compared to other stuff I’ve seen, and now that I think of it, you really don’t see that much other some blood and the victim’s eyes. What De Palma sells here is the idea of a guy getting cut up by a chainsaw, and that is plenty disturbing. To be sure, Scarface is the grittiest, grimiest, goriest crime saga in existence — it still packs a punch to the gut, and it is a great, glorious entertainment.

I say that not because I enjoy seeing guys get carved up, but because Scarface is brilliantly filmed and contains a performance by Al Pacino that has more than survived these 30-something years. It might be his best performance ever. This is a long, over-the-top, exhausting, finely detailed portrait of a human cockroach, a man who admits he crawled out of the gutter for his shot at the top. Unfortunately for him and everyone around him, “the top” is the drug world in Miami Beach, c. 1983, a time when human cockroaches were scurrying everywhere. The movie exists among these people but it does not condone their behavior or lifestyle. De Palma condemns Pacino’s character, Tony Montana, while seeming to glorify him. No, Tony glorifies himself. De Palma has the clarity of vision to say, “This guy is going to hell.”

Tony Montana. There’s no other character in movies like him. Pacino plays him as a strutting, vulgar little pimp who quickly comes to realize that murder is his ticket to riches. A criminal who ends up on the streets of Miami thanks to the convulsions in Cuba under Castro in 1980 (the movie includes an apology to Cuban-Americans in the end credits), Tony gets his first taste of blood making a political hit in exchange for a green card and the promise of a legitimate job. But as soon as he turns his first murder into a gopher job for a coke pusher (played with sinister glee by F. Murray Abraham), Tony spits on the legit world and goes whole-hog into dealing drugs. He doesn’t just want to work for The Man; he wants to become The Man. “First you get the money, then the power, then the women,” he tells his buddy Manolo (Steven Bauer). When he meets Frank, a South Miami scumbag, and his wife/mistress/trophy Elvira, he starts entertaining visions of a violent takeover.

All Tony needs is a reason to become a mass murderer, and he gets it when Frank, fed up with Tony’s refusal to play by the rules, orders a hit on him. Tony survives and exacts gory revenge. Soon he’s marrying Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer, in her screen debut) and running an empire with its tentacles in South America. But with power comes mighty paranoia, and Tony indulges all his worst impulses, blaming everyone else for the perils of his business. There are many famous scenes of Tony soaking in a marble bath big enough for 16, or strutting around in pinstripe suits and gold chains, or sticking his face into mountains of cocaine. This all seems crazy enough, but with Pacino running the dial up to 12 (or higher), it goes off-the-charts insane.

None of this would work if Pacino wasn’t so damned believable as Tony. He deploys a nasty Cuban accent that is, as far as I can tell, accurate enough — he had people on the set speak Spanish to him and correct his accent during filming. He sounds like pure gutter trash and carries himself as if he got all his ideas watching the earlier Scarface movie, on which this one is based. Tony is at least honest — he never wanted to be anything other than a gangster. His personality is based on bloodlust — he would far rather shoot you than look at you, and by one count, he ends up shooting more than 40 people.

The movie bombed in 1983, scoring zero Oscar nominations. But not unlike Blade Runner or The Thing, it gained a passionate following in subsequent years, obsessing masses of filmmakers with De Palma’s sensational style and Pacino’s flamboyant (to say the least) performance. There are scenes of stunning horror and almost laughable excess, and to be sure, large chunks of Scarface are utterly ridiculous. Everything about Tony is larger than life; Pacino even plays his quieter scenes with a kind of animal intensity that forces you to watch him. Tony is constantly scheming, using conversations with people to plan his next moves. Nothing with him is genuine — it’s all about him, and his money and business — but at the same time, he never stabs anyone in the back, and he never lies. There’s even a scene, late in the movie, where he refuses to murder an innocent woman and her children because “that’s not me.” The decision brings down the wrath of a drug lord and ends up costing Tony his life.

The finale of the movie, in which an army of gun-wielding thugs invades Tony’s fortress and murders everyone in sight, is the reason to sit through the thing. Tony is coked up, wasted, incoherent, plunging his face into a fat pile of coke, barely able to function. This is where he introduces us to his little friend — a combination grenade-launcher/machine gun. So coked up and crazed is he that he doesn’t even feel it when scores of bullets perforate his body. His final swan dive is a thing of beauty. At least he lived the life before it all caught up with him, poor bastard.

The Pacino performance is 180 degrees from his portrayal of Michael in The Godfather, but in some ways it is better because A) Pacino, obviously, is not Cuban-American, and B) that damned accent is almost a special effect in itself. Whatever you may think of Tony, the performance itself is magnificent because we forget we are watching Al Pacino. Tony Montana is fully formed. He makes the movie itself not only bearable, but great.

 

 

 

 

 

Fast and Furious Presents “WTF?”

Confession No. 1: I am not a fan of the Fast and Furious franchise. I know there are a slew of movies — nine or 10 at last count — that fall under the banner of F&F, but I have not watched … well, any of them. Virtually everything about these movies turns me off, at least, as far as I can tell from the marketing materials. I have been unable to find one reason to watch a single entry in the series. I’d rather watch James Bond or Mission: Impossible.

Therefore it is unreasonable and wholly unexpected that I would sit through Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw, which apparently utilizes characters and at least certain background scenarios from the original flagship series. Call it a guilty pleasure: I really, really enjoyed Hobbs and Shaw, even though it is ridiculous as all get-out.

But, of course it is. There is nothing about Hobbs and Shaw that demands to be taken seriously. This is exactly the kind of movie you turn off your brain for, and it plays so much better if you do just that. I could take or leave most movies of its ilk, and so can you, probably, but if you’re looking for a fun way to murder a couple of hours, you could do a lot worse than this cheerfully silly action spectacle.

Emphasis on cheerful and silly. The movie is headlined by two lunkheads of enduring box office appeal: The Rock (AKA Dwayne Johnson) and Jason Statham, who, as far as I can understand, occupy the same roles in the F&F series. At least, they were introduced in those movies, and their initial relationship established there. To this I say: who cares. It is immaterial to one’s enjoyment of Hobbs and Shaw. I don’t care what these two characters got up to in the main series; I enjoyed them in this one, and that is enough. In fact, if they want to make a sequel to this film, involving these same characters in yet another ridiculous international adventure, I’m for buying the DVD.

Johnson plays Hobbs, who is nothing more than a fantasy version of The Rock himself, and Statham plays, well, the other guy, who likewise is just a fantasy version of Statham. The actors themselves have long-established personas, and this movie lets them bounce off each other. It was directed by David Leitch, who also directed or co-directed, if you will, one of the John Wick movies, as well as Deadpool 2 and, I think, Atomic Blonde. I liked all three of those, and Hobbs and Shaw is another romp in the same toybox.

As Martin Scorsese would say, this ain’t cinema, at least, not in the same sense of Bergman or Welles or Fellini, but as a genre film, Hobbs and Shaw is a solid entry. It’s got a lot of laughs, most of them stemming from Statham and Johnson ragging each other out with colorful profanity, and the action is entertaining enough. I particularly liked the supporting cast, including Idris Elba as a technologically-enhanced bad guy, and Vanessa Kirby as a more-than-capable femme fatale loaded with another of those world-threatening super-viruses. They are both lots of fun.

A special word about Elba: He deserves to be the next Bond, and by all rights, he should be. He’s got the physical capabilities as well as the British accent, the fashion sense, and the talent for a well-executed bon mot. He’s terrific here as an intelligent bad ass, and in fact, if they’d swapped out Statham with Elba, they would probably have ended up with a better movie. Just having Elba around to cut to — after we’ve reached the saturation point with, say, The Rock’s witticisms — kicks the movie up a notch.

What can I say? I liked it. Statham and Johnson have an unforced chemistry that drives the entire movie; I could watch them do this stuff probably a hell of a lot longer than I could watch certain Marvel characters do their thing. Yes, this is corporate filmmaking, out for a buck, based on what I can only assume is a lazily-written franchise, but there’s no law against enjoying this kind of crap. In fact, I’ll be plugging it in again over the holidays.

 

 

 

 

On ‘The Sopranos’

Ten episodes into the first season of “The Sopranos,” I’m comparing it to binge-worthy dramas that came after the show ended … and the comparisons aren’t as good as I might have thought.

“The Sopranos” was, of course, the Show That Changed Everything. It premiered on HBO in January 1999, and for its time, it was groundbreaking. Here was a show that combined GoodFellas — the Martin Scorsese mob movie — with, I dunno, “Everybody Loves Raymond,” the CBS sitcom about the Italian-American family that is a little too close. It opens with a mobster, Tony Soprano, talking to a shrink. That hook, or gimmick, would continue throughout the series’ run, ending (abruptly!) in 2007. “The Sopranos” was the first cable television show that “had everybody talking.”

In the decade since “The Sopranos” ended, we’ve seen multiple series (many of them now streaming) that were obviously inspired by its mixture of dark humor, violence and domestic drama — most notably, “Breaking Bad,” which I loved. I understand that “The Sopranos” operates on a very high level of writing, acting, etc., but here’s the thing — I don’t love it. Not yet.

In 10 episodes, I don’t yet know where the show is going. It is very obviously trying to do something new (for its time), and today it plays like a combination of American Beauty, with its suburban middle-aged dad in dire need of psychotherapy, and the mob movies its characters revere, including (and most especially) The Godfather. Yet this is not an ironical show. The characters all know that they are mobsters, and they have all their favorite Italian-American movies memorized (and worship Scorsese, De Niro, et al) … but the show doesn’t seem to do anything with this very meta-knowledge. It’s not spoofing the mob movie, and yet it sometimes seems hard to take anything on the show very seriously. These guys know they are mobsters, they know how it usually ends for mobsters (with someone sleeping with the fishes) … and they’re OK with it?

At least in “Breaking Bad,” Walter White didn’t consciously revere or emulate arch-criminals in other works of fiction for whom things ended badly. No, he came up with an original idea and pursued it to its logical (fatal) conclusion. People who got in his way either became complicit (including his wife!) or got killed (his brother-in-law!). He didn’t set out to imitate his heroes; he became an anti-hero on his own. In “The Sopranos,” all the mobsters seem to be consciously imitating guys like Michael Corleone (or Sonny or Luca Brasi) or Henry Hill or Tommy DeVito. But they have to know that all these guys ended up on the wrong end of a gun or a prison sentence, right? So doesn’t that bother them? Don’t they feel at least some incentive to pick up another trade? No one thinks they’re going to lead a successful life if Tony Montana from Scarface is their role model, right?

Tony Soprano (played brilliantly by the late James Gandolfini) attends therapy sessions after having a panic attack over some ducks. The therapist, Dr. Melfi, is portrayed with sexy sensitivity by none other than Lorraine Bracco, who played Karen Hill in GoodFellas — which, again, all the characters in “The Sopranos” love. Now, is this casting some sort of meta-, ironic commentary on the mob genre? Bracco plays it straight — her Jennifer Melfi might be the most compelling character on the show, precisely because she is not part of the mob. But doesn’t this rich and crafty mob guy know for a second that Dr. Melfi strongly resembles Mrs. Henry Hill? Will there come a time when Tony pipes up with, “Hey, you know who you remind me of…?” Because that would be hilarious, and add another layer of self-awareness to a show that is already self-aware but doesn’t seem to know that it is self-aware.

I’m coming to the show late, having binged on “Breaking Bad” and “Game of Thrones,” and newcomers like “Bosch” and “Goliath,” shows that were not, by definition, self-aware, but willing to take as many chances with narrative and the constraints of their own genres as “The Sopranos.” It is clear to me that all these programs were inspired by the depth of characterization in “The Sopranos,” in the way they transform genre into soap opera and bring a rich depth of psychology to their scenarios. And make no mistake, “The Sopranos” was one of the most psychologically involving shows ever created.

But to me, each individual episode is TOO LONG and slow to make it binge-worthy, and it is neither as funny or exciting as any of those programs. Each episode of “Breaking Bad” was a tiny masterpiece of pacing, character development, technological detail, and criminal intrigue. It contained enough “holy shit” moments to fuel three other series. Likewise, “Bosch,” which is straightforward in its telling of the life of an LAPD homicide detective, uses everyday details to make its stories compelling. (It is not meta, it is not ironic, and it is all the better for it.) “The Sopranos,” in breaking such new ground back in 1999, is both too meta and not meta-enough. If you’re going to cast Lorraine Bracco in a show where everybody knows GoodFellas, do something with it, otherwise, you are distracting me.  (And she’s great in the show — yes, cast her!)

Also, whereas “Breaking Bad” really went places with its criminal behavior (who knew Albuquerque was such a hive of “scum and villainy”?), in “The Sopranos” … there really isn’t that much criminality. Yeah, Tony whacks a couple guys, and yeah, there are a few scenes of “illicit business,” and yeah, the characters are all mobbed up, but … all of that seems beside the point. Tony goes to see Dr. Melfi a lot, but they don’t get anywhere. She wants to remain completely outside the realm of his business, which makes her attractive to him. He falls in love — rather too quickly, very early in the first season. But because Dr. Melfi can’t hear anything about guys getting whacked without becoming complicit in the mob, she and Tony never discuss anything specific. They talk about symbols and feelings and his mother and father, but she never asks him, “Hey, how did you feel about garroting that guy to death?” Or, “how can you exhibit mob behavior when you’re taking your kid to a college visit?” Or, “who was your first murder victim?” Yet, nine times out of 10, Tony gets pissed off during their sessions and storms out, sometimes throwing money at Jennifer and telling her to stick it up her ass. What’s he so angry about? They haven’t even talked about anything!

The character who really should be in therapy is Carmella, played with gentle, matronly charm (and a foul mouth) by Edie Falco. Now here is an interesting character. Does she know Tony is a mob boss? And if so, how does she feel about it? The show never explores this. Carm seems to feel guilty about something, but most of the time, it seems like she’s just worried about raising their two bratty teenagers. Seriously, now — does Carm know the truth about Tony? Doesn’t she need to be in therapy? She encourages it for Tony, but what about her needs? Does she realize that her husband is either going to end up dead or in prison? Does she understand the dire threat to her own safety and that of her children? Maybe the show goes on to explore these questions, but so far, there’s none of that on the horizon.

Here’s an idea: instead of making Dr. Melfi your garden-variety psychiatrist, who cannot afford to get her hands dirty, create a boutique therapist who specializes in analyzing Mafia hitmen. That way, they can talk business and do some good. There’s no pussy-footing around the real topic, which is murder and violence. And have the mob wife go for a session or two, just to air her feelings. “The Sopranos” seems to want to talk too much in code about things it otherwise vividly portrays. Why? Is it trying to protect its characters from the evil that they do?

The show otherwise has some small frustrations. The underling mob guys are not very well developed, though it seems they would have make some interesting contributions. And some scenes are too soapy for their own good. Michael Imperioli, who was also in GoodFellas(!), plays a whiny mob killer trying to write a screenplay based on his life. In one episode, he complains about “not having an arc.” Really? A show whose characters want arcs can’t recognize Lorraine Bracco in their midst?

Overall, I like “The Sopranos.” It just isn’t binge-worthy. It was made before bingeing was a “thing,” and I think in the aftermath of shows like “Breaking Bad,” it pales just a little in comparison. The acting, writing, filmmaking, etc., are all first-class, some of the best I’ve ever seen. There’s no denying it’s a quality show. It just doesn’t speak as loudly, clearly and plainly as I would like, and if it’s going to be a show that knows it’s about mobsters, it needs to do something with its own self-awareness, otherwise, it just seems to be full of needless distractions.

I’m going to say that, if things don’t improve over the course of the next couple of seasons — which I plan on slowly getting around to — I’m going to suggest an alternate title to this GoodFellas knockoff: WannaBes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rogue One is a bad Star Wars movie

Though a colossal box office hit, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is bad Star Wars.

It’s a fail in so many ways, and I’m glad Disney has had the good sense to stop with the spin-off, standalone “stories” (in much the same way it has apparently decided to stop with the canonical Episodes). In five short (or long) years, Disney has gone way, way overboard with Star Wars, putting out no fewer than five movies since 2015 — two of which were Rogue One and Solo. I’m willing to accept Episodes Seven through Nine as essential viewing, but the standalone movies? Not so much.

Much better, so far is the standalone Star Wars series The Mandalorian on Disney-Plus. It at least has the true spirit of the first Star Wars movie, which was, at its heart, a Western. (Before I go any further in praising Disney product — yes, I know that Star Wars, Marvel, et al, are all mere titles on the menu of a corporate switchboard. Yes, I know we are all sheep. If I could live in a better world, I would.) The Mandalorian takes its time telling short, simple, straightforward stories that do a good job of expanding George Lucas’ original vision in an interesting way. I would, I admit, like to see the title character’s face, just to establish more of a human connection, but thus far the series gets a thumbs up.

Not so Rogue One, which has troubled me for a long time. The biggest problem I have is that it is just plain unnecessary — perhaps not more unnecessary than Solo, but still. Rogue One is the ultimate form of needless exposition, covering ground that was better left suggested in the opening crawl of A New Hope. As everyone no doubt knows (see what I mean?), Rogue One tells the story of the band of Rebels who stole the secret plans to the Death Star, setting up the entire plot of Episode IV. The only thing Rogue One adds to the canon is the explanation of the placement of the secret weakness that Luke Skywalker manages to use to blow up said Death Star in A New Hope. That’s it.

Watching the movie again recently on Plus, I realized the central problem with Rogue One: It’s boring. Yes, there are interesting visual effects, aliens, planets and, especially, space battles. (The climactic starship battle between the Empire and the Rebellion prefigures the one at the end of Episode IV, and I have to admit, it’s exciting and well done.) But the story is a complete waste of time. From the standpoint of characterization and narrative, Rogue One is an utter wash.

I defy you to come up with the name of one single character in Rogue One, and I mean someone other than Darth Vader (who makes a scary if uncharacteristically Freddie Krueger-ish appearance at the end). Hell, I can’t even remember the name of the good-guy Imperial battle droid whose sarcastic one-liners get a few laughs, much less the names of the human team members whose job is to steal the plans, etc. The movie doesn’t have time to give them personalities beyond the task at hand. There’s not a Han Solo or a Luke Skywalker or a C-3PO in the bunch — there can’t be, because by definition, this movie does not deal with any of those characters. That leaves a bunch of empty roles and a lot of time to fill.

Directed by Gareth Edwards, the movie is darker than we’ve come to expect from Star Wars, and I mean visually darker — it’s as if Edwards doesn’t really want you to be able to see very clearly the action on the screen. It’s a glum, joyless, violent universe filled with unlikable characters who aren’t even given the chance to be liked. This doesn’t even feel like Star Wars. It does, however, feel like fan fiction, which is essentially what Disney has been putting out since 2015. Like the Prequels or not, at least they were from the mind of George Lucas — they represented his vision, and he spent his money (as well as his reputation) producing them. Disney has decided to go its own direction with Star Wars, handing the bulk of the vision off to fairly independent-minded creators like Rian Johnson and J.J. Abrams. But Rogue One is a bridge too far.

I like messing with Star Wars tropes and seeing the story expand in new and exciting ways; I thought The Last Jedi was the best film of 2017 and certainly one of the best Star Wars movies, precisely because it messes with our expectations. I liked the twist with Luke Skywalker and thought that “old-guy” Luke was a natural extension of the character — the tired old Jedi going away and reconsidering his life, far from the heat of battle. (Plus, Mark Hamill gave an excellent performance.)

That doesn’t mean Rogue One gets a pass for explaining to me how the Death Star plans got stolen, and how the Rebels who did the job all got killed for their effort. This is a depressing story, filled with questionable scenarios and predictable, cliched direction. One major sequence, for example, has the characters all standing around in the rain, getting soaked, and in total darkness. Another, involving a gun battle between various (confusing) factions, is rendered silly by the good guys literally clubbing armored stormtroopers to death with batons. What? The stormtroopers can’t shoot these guys? Is this any way to run an Empire, with such bad shots and weak-ass armor? When you start asking these kinds of questions, the filmmaking is not doing its job.

Then we have the digital resurrection of poor Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin, overseer of the Death Star. This is a true WTF decision. Why not have another actor play Tarkin? It’s creepy seeing a CGI Cushing, not to mention completely unnecessary. Do I even need to mention the terrible CGI Carrie Fisher in the final shot? Couldn’t Edwards, et al, have found a different way of putting across the same concluding line?

I dunno …. there are certain things to admire about the movie, but they all have to do with art direction and production design. I like the way the ships at the end all look like highly-detailed models instead of CGI … but the movie shoots itself in the foot by giving us human characters (based on deceased actors) who are nothing but CGI. Is this some kind of weird reaction to the all-CGI production of Lucas’ Prequels? Pretty misguided, if you ask me. Nothing in any of the Prequels seems as wrong as the digital recreation of a dead British actor playing a character who was minor in his own movie.

I liked the visualization of Vader’s castle, and yeah, the death scenes of the heroes are fairly compelling. But so what? Rogue One made a lot of money, but it also feels a little like overkill. (Solo didn’t help matters.) I think additional Star Wars stories are fine for the small screen, which is why I approve of The Mandalorian, but I’m glad to see Disney putting the brakes on this franchise.

 

 

 

 

Not all traditions are healthy

My father was into guns, but he wasn’t a hunter. I grew up around guns but no one ever took me hunting. At this point in my life, I’m too old to give a shit about it, as either a sport or an activity that, ideally, puts food on the table. If I want meat for my fridge, I’ll go to Walmart and buy prepackaged beef or pork. I’m not going to freeze my ass off going out in the woods to shoot it.

This is prime deer hunting season in Arkansas, and I know many, many men who have abandoned the towns for the woods. Most of my in-laws are now spending or have spent the past few days on the trail of Bambi. No doubt they’re planning on spending as much time as possible between now and Thanksgiving on the hunt. Myself, I couldn’t give less of a damn.

As I close in on my 50th year, and read the headlines and try to make sense of the world around me, thus weighing what is important and what is not so important in whatever calculus I hold dear, I come to a few conclusions about hunting and guns. Since the activity or club has been closed to me for the majority of my life, I will state that I don’t give a fuck about hunting, and I think most people spend far too much time, effort and money on it. I can understand getting out and shooting a deer in order to make sure that my family has something to eat, but here is the deal: none of the men out in the woods this week are starving. They’re living it up in private deer camps, which are actually extended-stay hotels decked out with big kitchens, large eating areas, and comfortable bunk rooms (if not private bedrooms). There are indoor bathroom facilities and all the accoutrements (including television!) of home. I know — I visited the family camp last year. It is nothing less than a home away from home.

Many deer camps are the equivalent of family vacation homes, with nice large fireplaces, comfortable couches, changing rooms, mud rooms, and plenty of space for parking. I don’t know of a single deer camp with a bad roof or a dirty floor. I know of none without electricity or running water (or at least readily-available well water). They have first-aid and laundry facilities.

No one is roughing it, at least, not as Mark Twain understood the term.

No, these guys are on vacation, pretty much, away from their wives and children (unless they bother bringing their wives and kids with them ….. which some do and some don’t). There’s plenty of food, and here’s the thing: they bring their food from town. They don’t rely on what they shoot in the woods for their breakfast, lunch or dinner. Nobody’s going without. No one is sleeping in a tent or on a cot. For cold weather there are blankets and heaters, and everyone has a smartphone, so they can snap selfies and post them on Facebook.

What hunting takes place occurs from the safety of a tall stand, mounted about as high as the average pine, and deer are attracted by food supplements like corn that has been distributed by electronic “feeders.” There are game cameras everywhere that allow the vacationers to keep track of wild hogs and bears — which are almost as common as deer. Some days a hunter will bag something, but most days, none will. I have heard of some hunters who’ve gone months or even years without shooting a single thing.

I know myself well enough to know that if I went to the trouble of leaving my actual home for days on end to climb up in a tree and wait for hours for a deer to walk by, I would grow bored in a hurry if I ended up with nothing. Knowing myself, I know that I would call a halt to the activity pretty much after the first day. I keep thinking of that old adage: “Fool me once, shame on me…” I’d start looking for the exit and fast. Worse, my brain would start racking up all the other things I could do with my time, which one might generously refer to as “time better spent.” Binging The Sopranos or the Star Wars saga while drinking a nice cold beer might be a good place to start. Anything but sitting out in the woods tricking myself into believing that any aspect of “hunting” is necessary to life.

Could I shoot a deer? Probably. I feel no affection for the animals, and I’m well aware of their stupid propensity for crashing into cars. Is it admirable for a man to go out and bag a big buck? Yeah, sure … but don’t rub my nose in the trophy photos, please. Let’s see you go into a slaughterhouse and pose next to a recently-deceased cow or pig. Let’s see how many likes you get on Facebook for snapping a shot of some road-killed dog or cat. A dead animal on social media is still a dead animal on social media, and I don’t care that your kid killed it.

Men who stay out in the woods hunting for longer than a couple of days — especially if they are unproductive — really need to come home. Life goes on. Work goes on, taxes still must be paid. Homes need tending. There is nothing in my life that requires me to disappear for days on end, and I don’t care to pick up the slack for those who do. A vacation is fine, camping out is fine, but playing Elmer Fudd hunting wabbits is just a little ridiculous.

My feeling is that hunting clubs are cults, and the mentality that tells generation after generation that hunting must be done at all costs, no matter what, is a subtle form of brainwashing. I want no part of it, thanks. I can eat just as well without it — and I know the hunters can, too, when you consider how many hamburgers and hot dogs they’ll consume in a given week.

Guns, of course, are a necessary part of the hunting culture. I’m sorry, but I’ve never thought of a gun as anything other than a weapon for self-defense. I don’t go in for rifles. That’s just me; some folks don’t necessarily go in for shotguns. For that reason, I have a healthy respect for guns. They’re not something you should just stand around fondling. Put that fucking gun up. Make sure it isn’t loaded. Make sure you hand it to someone the proper way — unloaded, butt first. Know how to check the breech to make sure there’s no round in it. Handle the gun as little as possible — put it away with the safe on. A gun isn’t a fucking toy, and if you’re not an expert with a gun, I really don’t want to see you with one, much less go traipsing through the woods with you. Accidents happen all too easily, and an accident with a gun can easily mean death.

Now, one can use a variety of guns while hunting — muzzleloaders, etc. – and bow hunting is a popular pastime. These all have their place, and more power to those who know how to use them. It’s too late for me.

I’ve tried, but I can’t think of hunting as anything other than a sport, which I can take or leave. It’s not necessary for living. And I think far too many people spend too much time on it. Not every tradition is a healthy one.

 

 

 

 

GoodFellas

As it reaches its 30th anniversary, it is time to proclaim that there are few movies as good as GoodFellas. The 1990 Martin Scorsese mobster movie is the very definition of classic, and was probably the best film of the entire decade. Others can argue whether it is Scorsese’s best — there are, after all, Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation of Christ to deal with — but as far as I am concerned, it is his most consistently and effortlessly entertaining. To put on this movie is to be whisked into another world for almost three hours and never feel anything but exhilarated.

Yes, it is a violent movie about violent human beings — and I hesitate to even call some of the people in this movie human. It is profane and sometimes horrifying, and you wouldn’t want to know any of the people in GoodFellas personally — if you did, there would be something very, very wrong in your life. It is not even particularly original — after all, The Godfather did a great job of depicting this bloody, double-dealing, moral-free world and still stands as a great film. But whereas The Godfather is, first and foremost, a film about a family business, GoodFellas is about a way of life — it is about the Mafia with a capital M, and less about a family or even individual characters. Michael Corleone experiences a horrifying change of heart , one that changes the entire trajectory of the Corleone family. GoodFellas isn’t about that, not at all. It is about a bunch of guys with no heart. It’s about money — my money, and who’s got my fuckin’ money, and when I can expect to get my fuckin’ money — oh, and fuck you, pay me.

Scorsese has always made movies that might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but GoodFellas is such a purely poetic film, that is so brisk and entertaining, that you forget to be offended. It is, above all else, a great black comedy — a Mafia movie that gets as many laughs as anything by the Farrelly Brothers. And they are great, earned laughs, punctuated by horror when someone gets stabbed, shot, or beaten. Scorsese knows this world so well — like the back of his fuckin’ hand — that he’s not afraid to let the humor come out. Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci are, I kid you not, as effective a comedy team as the guys on “Seinfeld.” You could substitute Jerry, Kramer and George here and not miss a beat. (Throw in Lorraine Bracco and you got Elaine.) I don’t mean to make light of the movie’s message — that the Mafia is a pack of dogs unfit to walk this Earth — Scorsese by no means endorses criminal behavior — but the actors and their dialogue are just, well, funny. Despite all the shootings, etc., it is impossible to dislike these horrible people.

Let me reiterate that Scorsese is not holding up mobsters and saying, “Will you look at these wonderful, misunderstood people?” No — he’s saying that, from inside this world, it all looks perfectly normal. Henry Hill, the main character played by Liotta, is an outsider who spent his whole life wanting to get in. “All my life, I wanted to be a gangster,” he says, in his first line of narration, and the movie is about how Henry not only became one (true story) but how his dream ended up — with him and his estranged wife under Witness Protection. Hardly an endorsement of crime as a wholesome way of life.

But with the money flowing and the laughs ringing (and the bodies piling up), why would you ever want to live any other way? For Henry, crime is an easy, fun way of making a buck — emphasis on fun. He gets special treatment in ways Scorsese describes at length, from girls and booze to the best seats in the finest restaurants. (He doesn’t even have to wait in line!) No, he can never be a “made guy,” because he’s half-Irish — the mob won’t admit anyone who isn’t full-blooded Italian, the lineage traceable to “the Old Country.” But that doesn’t keep Henry from getting his hands plenty dirty.

His partners in crime are Jimmy Conway (De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Pesci), lifelong mobsters who will rob or kill anyone to make a buck. They answer to Paulie (Paul Sorvino), the local neighborhood boss who runs his crew with an iron fist. Cross Paulie and you got life-threatening problems, make him his friend, and you can get anything you want — for awhile, and at a price.

The movie has no particular plotline but rather follows Henry through his days in the mob, beating up guys, bribing cops, etc. This never feels like anything but a natural, unforced narration — Scorsese never plays a note wrong. Liotta is totally believable as Henry, and De Niro and Pesci have never been better. Everyone is in their environment, completely at ease. We believe these people in this world, and understand how they could all feel so comfortable. This was, in essence, “The Sopranos” 10 years before the Sopranos came along.

When violence erupts, it is without warning. Witness the scene where Tommy — insane, unpredictable, completely unhinged — shoots a kid named Spider for being late with a drink. The dialogue that follows is classic mob tough-guy (“You’re gonna dig the fuckin’ hole!”) and outrageously funny. Yet somehow Scorsese also communicates that this is wrong — that there is something deeply fucked- up about these guys, who would kill a person over so very little. You could say that Scorsese has his cake and eats it too … but so what? The horror is beside the point. The point is that these guys exist in this world and this world has always existed — it is part and parcel of the American story.

The acting is genius-level simply because it is so hard to notice. You don’t catch De Niro acting the way you did (and were intended to) in Raging Bull. He’s quieter here, but somehow more menacing. He lets Pesci handle all the fireworks. Pesci turns in one of the great, original, terrifying, unforgettable performances, winning an Oscar for his work. This is his definitive role (forget those Home Alone flicks!) and he makes the movie his own. He gets the great “why am I funny?” scene (mostly improvised) but also so many other great scenes, like his berating of Spider or his “borrowing” of the butcher knife. Pesci somewhat recreated the performance five years later in Casino, another great Scorsese-De Niro pairing, but this one is still the best.

If Pesci and De Niro form one type of couple in GoodFellas, Liotta and Bracco form another, in Henry and Karen Hill. That neither of them won an Oscar is a travesty. They are the “heart” of the film, though they are both utterly heartless (or maybe soulless). Though they profess to love each other and their kids, it’s really all about money for Henry and Karen. Though the ultimate outsider — a Jewish girl, no less! — Karen is as deep into “the life” as Henry. He implicates her in his activities the day he beats up her old boyfriend and then thrusts his bloody pistol in her hand, telling her to “hide this.” From that moment on, she is on the hook. Later in the film, Karen is doing cocaine and helping Henry with his drug deals. Yet she also wants to pretend to be innocent — in fact, that’s what she tries telling the FBI when Henry finally runs out of money and turns himself in. These are disgusting people, finally wallowing in their own despair, but that doesn’t make them less fascinating to watch.

Scorsese shows us the whole world of the Mafia, from the nightclubs to the crime scenes to the family Christmases. We get to know literally dozens of minor characters, their funny names and habits, and see a lot of them die horribly. Yet that’s what they have coming. When you join the Mob — and Henry does so, willingly and with great glee — you throw your life down a rabbit hole. The threat of death or incarceration constantly hangs over you, and the chance that your best friend will betray you stands at 100 percent. Scorsese shows us how much fun this all is — the cinematography is whiz-bang, and the soundtrack is loaded with period hits from the Sixties and Seventies — but ends the ride with a shocker: Henry turned rat. He finked on his pals in court. It might be fun being in the Mob, at least for a while, but things don’t turn out OK. You eventually catch a knife in the back or a bullet in the head, and fellas, that’s no kinda life.

 

 

Get lost, Shorty

In the mid-90s, I had a healthy (or perhaps unhealthy) love of what I thought of as “tough-guy” movies. No doubt inspired by Reservoir Dogs, I sat through as many films of guys talking tough to each other as I could find. This was a brand-new genre (or new to me), and in the Nineties, a ton of these movies were made. Tarantino was the king of this kind of cinema, with his charismatic bad guys rattling off profanities before shooting each other. But there were dozens of lesser writers and directors out there churning out pure schlock.

I would add Martin Scorsese and the Coen Brothers to that short list of filmmakers capable of making excellent tough-guy crime fiction. GoodFellas and Casino are the height of the genre, while Fargo and The Big Lebowski represent a more domesticated take on “Tarantinoland.” (The bad guys are dumber and the good guys a bit more reliable.)

Into the uncomfortable center of this period stepped Get Shorty, a flyweight genre caper based on a book by the late-great crime writer Elmore Leonard. Leonard, who primarily wrote Westerns, was always a bit of an acquired taste for me — though he could apply nifty phrases and whip-smart dialogue to a wisp of a plot, I never felt any of his books represented a good investment of time.

That can certainly be said of Get Shorty the movie, which, 25 years after its release, is a complete waste of time. It was a box office hit for John Travolta, whose career had been revived a year earlier by Tarantino and Pulp Fiction. His performance is the only reason to see it, and not much of one, at that. Travolta is all tough-guy manner and surface, but he’s no Robert De Niro in Heat, or Michael Madsen in Dogs. He’s essentially a nice guy who wants to break into show business, even if it means breaking a few necks.

Travolta, as “shylock” Chili Palmer, struts through his scenes finding all kinds of wacky, self-conscious ways of holding a cigarette. He’s a smooth talker, charming, funny and deceptively calm — he’ll kick the kneecaps out from under you in a heartbeat. The plot sends him from Miami to Los Angeles to find a schlub who absconded with a lot of money that someone else wants (schlub played by the squirrely David Paymer, back when movies cast him). But Chili isn’t really interested in the film’s main plot, as the movie itself is not. No, he’s more interested in a completely boring character played by that most unappealing of actors, Danny DeVito. The title refers to the fact that DeVito’s movie-star character is, in fact, short. That’s it. Get Shorty. Ha.

The film also stars Rene Russo in a vaguely amusing turn as a seen-it-all fading star, and Gene Hackman in a somewhat comedic turn as a hapless movie producer. There are nominal bad guys out for someone else’s money, played variously by Dennis Farina and Delroy Lindo. Oh, Bette Midler turns up in an uncredited cameo.

None of this sticks. It’s directed by a mediocre special effects hack named Barry Sonnenfeld who also directed Men in Black and the career-killing Wild Wild West. This is depressing, unfunny, Tarantino-lite schtick that wishes it had a fraction of Scorsese’s savage humor or the Coen Brothers’ technical skill. It’s too profane to be taken lightly and too frivolous to rank anywhere near the greats.

****

Oddly enough, Tarantino, who made a name for himself writing genuine tough-guy dialogue in his first two films, adapted a Leonard novel for his third feature film. The result was, unsurprisingly, much better than Get Shorty.

Jackie Brown (1997) was known as Rum Punch under Leonard’s byline, but Tarantino does what Kubrick did with The Shining by making the whole thing his own enterprise. I suppose the bones of the Leonard novel are still there, but Tarantino made the lead character a female — played with spectacular gravitas by Pam Grier — and gave it his own time-hopping spin a’la Pulp Fiction. By casting other heavyweights like Robert De Niro, Michael Keaton, Samuel L. Jackson and Oscar-nominated Robert Forster, Tarantino made a film that is infinitely more hard-hitting than Get Shorty. Jackie Brown is a hangout movie in much the same way Leonard’s books spend leisurely amounts of time getting to know the characters. They talk and talk and talk and talk, usually in profane sentences, their dialogue spelling out who they are and why they are the way they are. Thing is, Jackie Brown has aged so well that I would make it a Top 5 Tarantino film, while Get Shorty now plays like weak sauce.

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