The Irishman (2019)

Today sees the UK release of Harriet, but only two weeks ago we got a brand new biopic from Martin Scorsese. For that I did a themed week around very long films, but this week’s theme means I can revisit that film and post a review. I liked it. I gather some didn’t or felt it somehow less consequential in Scorsese’s oeuvre, but a lot of people have been gunning for him for some throwaway but no less deeply felt comments about superhero movies. Still, there’s a place for everything in modern cinema, and even if three-and-a-half hour gangster epics are mostly being made for streaming services now, it was still a solid box office draw given the very large packed cinema I saw this one in on a Saturday afternoon.


Look, I mean yes Scorsese has some good films (even some great ones) in all genres, but the stuff he’s always been best at capturing is the world of gangsters — a shady world of men closed away behind dark glasses in subterranean lairs — but those worlds have changed as he’s got older. Now the gangsters are old too, they’re old men who have lost things in life, maybe lost everything, lost their friends, alienated their families and are just these old men, dying off and being forgotten. No matter how powerful you were, how much influence you had, eventually people forget your name, your legacy and everything that made you important when you were in your prime, and that’s eventually what it feels like he’s getting at by the end of this film. The de-aging technology has been much discussed, but even when these men are presumably playing 20 or 30-year-olds, back in the 1950s, they still look like old men, move in a hulking slow way — I don’t think that’s wrong for the characters, but in practice they always seem old no matter what the time period is. The timelines are all mixed up, though, as events from one era rush into those from another, because this is a story being told from the perspective of that old, forgotten gangster, as snippets of events seem to hit him and pull him along, and for all of its length, the film is never slow or boring, provided you like this slow-burning vibe that Scorsese is going for. Pacino does his usual big thing, though increasingly looking like Steve Van Zandt as he gets older in the film (and Little Steven is in the film too, in a small part, playing some old school crooner on stage I believe), but the rest of the cast are all about intensity, not least Joe Pesci, who feels like the real standout in this ensemble. It’s a good film, is what I’m saying.

The Irishman film posterCREDITS
Director Martin Scorsese; Writer Steven Zaillian (based on the non-fiction book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt); Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto; Starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Ray Romano, Anna Paquin, Stephen Graham; Length 209 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Saturday 9 November 2019.

Jersey Boys (2014)

The jukebox musical — that stagy theatrical concept whereby a bunch of musical numbers are integrated into a narrative, recently popularised on film by Mamma Mia! (2008) and seen in last year’s Sunshine on Leith — has always been an odd genre, and one I’ve not particularly warmed to, despite being quite a fan of musicals. The requirement to shoehorn in a band’s music and then explain it within the narrative lends itself to a certain campness, which the films I mention above embrace by tying it to a self-consciously melodramatic fictional narrative. Here, though, the story is drawn from life (via a Broadway musical), being that of the band whose music is featured, namely Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. It takes place over a period of decades, and this grand sweep means that a lot of the emotional impact is reduced. What you get, then, is a bunch of choreographed musical performances (some done rather well) in amongst a lot of temperamental band arguments, streetwise hustling for money and gigs, some pretty downplayed mafia stuff (I’m never clear what exactly Christopher Walken’s don even does for the band), and life-changing events like the one involving Frankie’s daughter, that all have very little impact because things are passed by so quickly. Added to this, while there’s some gorgeous Edward Hopper-esque moodiness to the cinematography, the period setting all seems to be rather drained of vibrancy. Perhaps this is due to the staginess of the set design, but mostly it’s the lack of urgency in the acting. The four band members are all actors with whose work I had not previously been familiar (the lead, John Lloyd Young, comes from the Broadway version, and the others have television backgrounds), but only Vincent Piazza as loud-mouthed Tommy DeVito makes much of a mark, while the others barely seem to age over the several decades we follow them; they are all too young and lack the required gravitas to convince. It’s not a terrible film by any means, but it’s at best a footnote to the success of the stage original.

Jersey Boys film posterCREDITS
Director Clint Eastwood; Writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice (based on the musical); Cinematographer Tom Stern; Starring John Lloyd Young, Erich Bergen, Vincent Piazza, Christopher Walken, Michael Lomenda; Length 134 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wandsworth, London, Tuesday 24 June 2014.

Safe (2012)

I’ve not yet seen enough Statham movies to discern the particular mechanics by which he has acceded to action film superhero status — aside obviously from his competence at fight choreography — but comparing this film to the recent Homefront suggests that being a father figure to young, life-hardened but yet vulnerable girls is part of his persona. In Safe, for example, he has to protect Mei (Catherine Chan) from a triple threat of Chinese triads, Russian mafia and corrupt New York cops. The script, also by director Boaz Yakin, is hardly going to win any plaudits for its sensitive portrayal of New York’s criminal underbelly, but then the action film genre is hardly the place to do this. Instead, what the film has is plenty of taut, well-directed and well-staged action sequences — which at least puts it ahead of the aforementioned Homefront — and some small but touching hints at vulnerability on the part of Statham and his pre-adolescent charge.

Statham here portrays Luke, an ex-cop now reduced to violent cage fights, who finds his life turned upside-down when he botches one such fight that he was supposed to throw. Pretty soon his (unseen) pregnant wife is murdered and he’s on the run from a vengeful Russian mafia boss. Meanwhile, in a parallel story, young maths whiz Mei is kidnapped by triad boss Han Jiao (the venerable James Hong) to assist him in his criminal enterprises. She does a bit of, you know, mathematics and stuff, to prove her capability, but her chief function in the film is to remember a number which, it is implied, holds the key to all of Han Jiao’s not inconsiderable fortune — it’s not clear exactly how, or why, or… I mean… seriously, WHAT EVEN IS GOING ON with her special superpowers — but that’s beside the point. What’s important is that as a result of her knowledge, she now becomes the target of the aforementioned Russians, quickly joined by corrupt NYPD Captain Wolf (Robert John Burke), and when Mei escapes it brings her into contact with Luke, and etc. etc. you get the gist.

As I hope you can tell, it’s all really a bit silly just how this young girl can be the key to everyone’s fortunes, but she doesn’t really need to bear the weight of convincing us all of this tortuous plotting (since who could really believe it), meaning the youthful Chan does well with what she has to do. Statham, though, has to convince as a man down on his luck who finds meaning in protecting Mei, and this he does rather well. It’s a touching scene when the two meet, as Luke is at his lowest point, lurking on a subway platform contemplating suicide to escape the dark and despairing world he’s been drawn into. Beyond that, Burke (best known for playing oligarch Bart Bass in teen TV melodrama Gossip Girl) is effective as the oleaginously creepy Cpt Wolf, while James Hong brings gravitas to his bad guy as he always does.

Getting invested in all the twists and turns of the plot is not so much the point, as the way everything is put together. I was only previously familiar with director Boaz Yakin from his film Fresh (1994), a well-wrought coming-of-age-in-the-‘hoods story partly drawn from his own experience and which, it turns out, is a rather singular work in his otherwise fairly action-oriented filmography. What this means is that while he can effectively bring some serious dramatic pathos where required, he’s also got the chops to nimbly execute a good explosive action setpiece, of which there are plenty. Nothing here feels out of place or ridiculous, it’s a generic story told without condescension by a group of actors who are equal to the material. That can sometimes count for something.

Safe film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Boaz Yakin בועז יכין; Cinematographer Stefan Czapsky; Starring Jason Statham, Catherine Chan, Robert John Burke, James Hong 吳漢章, Chris Sarandon; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Friday 27 December 2013.