The Irishman: How Giants Confront Mortality

On a snowy day in the woods of present day Austria in AD 180, Maximus rallied his troops before the final battle and shouted, ”What we do in life, echoes in eternity!” The battle ensued and Maximus’ men came out triumphant. This happened in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator from 2000. Meanwhile, nineteen years later, Martin Scorsese closes the second decade of this century with a much gloomier statement. One could narrow it down to, ”What we do in life is final.”

vlcsnap-2019-11-29-23h16m40s672
A dying hitman is our introduction to America’s history.

With a career spanning over 50 years, Scorsese has grown into a filmmaker whose movies tend to define specific time periods and speak for entire generations. Although set in different times and places, movies like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull became the epitome of the societal turmoil of the 70s and 80s, while Goodfellas and The Departed redefined the cinema of the 90s and mid 2000s by specifically reformulating the genre of gangster films and thrillers, giving audiences a reason to keep believing in a type of filmmaking that seemed on the verge of destruction on behalf of the Hollywood machine. If there was a cinematic mind who could bring us an epic the likes of which we haven’t seen since The Godfather and Once Upon a Time in America and still find a way to keep audiences engaged, it’s Martin Scorsese.
Based on Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses which served as a memoir for union teamster turned mafia hitman Frank Sheeran, The Irishman was always meant to be made into a full-scale epic as its story spanned almost half a century and covered major historical milestones such as the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Kennedy assassination, Italian-American Civil Rights League movement, the McClellan hearings and finally, Jimmy Hoffa’s infamous disappearance in 1975. And as monumental and grand the scale of this project turned out to be, Scorsese’s latest vehicle is an extremely personal piece of work, specifically in the way it goes about tackling the theme of mortality, a theme that is used to set the film apart from the director’s other ventures into the genre such as Mean Streets, Goodfellas and Casino.

vlcsnap-2019-11-29-23h23m53s199
Scorsese captures the turmoil of the 60s and 70s.

”He couldn’t finish [explaining the character of Frank Sheeran]. He was too emotionally involved,” said Scorsese in a recent panel talk at the AFI Fest 2019, when retelling the story of how De Niro first approached him with the idea for a new collaborative project.  Scorsese continued, ”That’s when I realized… maybe this is where we have to go. Maybe this gives us the opportunity to make another picture not in the same vein. Maybe we could find depth in this.” Finally, the director concluded this explanation with a key sentence, ”What is it? It turns out it’s us… life.”
Life goes by fast. In Hollywood especially. Life is also fragile. Scorsese would know best. This is the same man who almost went mad after New York, New York turned out to be the flop of the year in 1977, who was rumored to have threatened a producer with a gun when Taxi Driver had been initially X-rated, who was targeted by the Catholic Church and other religious groups after the release of the highly controversial Last Temptation of Christ, who abused drugs to the point he ended up in a hospital before De Niro gave him a book that saved his life and inspired him to make one of the great masterpieces of modern cinema, Raging Bull.
At 77 years of age and with almost 40 directorial efforts behind his belt including feature films and documentaries, The Irishman is not just another number in the Italian-American director’s vast filmography. This is a chapter, a chapter that Scorsese along with his long-time friends, friends from way back, from teenage years spent in Little Italy and Queens, including De Niro, Pesci, Pacino, Keitel and others, decided to write together. A last ride? Perhaps not. Certainly it is a collaboration that when looked at from the perspective of these aging stars takes on a whole new form.

vlcsnap-2019-11-29-23h11m41s944
Pesci plays the quiet mob boss, Russell Bufalino, to perfection.

In The Irishman, we witness the rise of a WWII veteran from truck driver to mafia hitman and finally, to personal friend and bodyguard of Jimmy Hoffa. We witness America change, we witness a nation in turmoil go through happy times and times of bloodshed, widespread distrust and panic.
But this passage of time is not as colorful and cool as the one we experience in Goodfellas, when we get to hang out with Henry Hill and the gang, and see them grow in rank, rob banks, have romances and eventually, from to time, get to kill somebody. It is also not as glamorous and dynamic as the passage of time seen in Casino, when it seems like there is no end to Ace Rothstein’s success in the city of dreams, Las Vegas. While yes, in both films our protagonists meet their end in a rather sobering fashion, with Hill getting to spend the rest of his life in some remote part of the country under the witness protection program, and Ace having most of his estate taken away by the authorities, The Irishman refuses to fall into the rise-and-fall scenario throughout its entire lengthy run-time.
The rise of I spoke of earlier in this paragraph is a slow and quite dreadful one. Our protagonist, Frank Sheeran, is a strong-arm, a heavy-set man with blue eyes, wide shoulders and an imposing figure. He’s strong enough to carry hindquarters and change tires. The one feature that makes him stand out in mobster Russell Bufalino’s eyes (Joe Pesci is back, baby! And better than ever) is his obedience to orders. When you tell Frank what to do, you can bet your ass he’s going to see it through. He’s a man who goes through the motions and despite stating in his introduction as an elderly man in a wheelchair looking back on his life, ”I was one of a thousand working stiffs. Until I wasn’t no more,” Frank finds himself victim of a system, a system that is much larger and much more powerful than a single man. Once he is sucked into the underworld of Philadelphia and starts carrying out the orders on behalf of Bufalino and Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel back in a Scorsese movie for the first time since 1988), Frank witnesses history. He claims he delivered weapons for the CIA to be used in the Bay of Pigs. Moreover, in the book, the retired hitman hints he might have been implicated in delivering the rifles that would later on be used to assassinate JFK. History literally flashes by Frank. And yet… and yet Frank is unaware of it. De Niro’s Sheeran stays a working stiff. He completes his tasks and deals with the world in an extremely dissociative way. When Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino at his best in years) asks him, ”Would you like to be a part of this history?” Sheeran says in a dry, almost robotic manner, ”Yes… sir. I would.” And while the two become close friends, with Frank stating numerous times that Hoffa was the greatest man he ever knew, the Irishman is unable to truly engage with the world around him. The only familiar corners for him are mob hang-outs and union picket lines.

vlcsnap-2019-11-29-23h18m29s403
In the company of some of America’s most powerful people.

Critics and fans have pointed out the absence of a truly meaningful female character. However, I cannot help but find, similarly to Scorsese, the character of Frank’s daughter, Peggy, as the key to the puzzle. Peggy has very few lines throughout the entirety of the film, but her silence speaks volumes of how her father goes about living his life. She watches as the heavy-set man quietly exits the house at night to carry out a hit. She watches as her father shoves a gun into his pocket before going on a trip. She watches the man sitting across the table from her, reading the morning newspaper with the headlines of a grizzly murder he most likely committed. He offers no answers. But she’s figured him out. And she pities him. And as the years go by, the little girl turns into a teenager and eventually into an adult woman with a family, but her silence remains and acts as a reminder to Frank of what this life he’s so proudly gone through, from veteran to truck driver to bodyguard and even union boss, had to offer and what he’s missed out on.

vlcsnap-2019-11-29-23h12m57s656
Peggy watching as her father sets an example.

Unlike Sheeran, Jimmy Hoffa was a man with principles who fought for survival with any means necessary. He was as popular as Elvis and as opposed as a Communist. He was a folk hero and a public enemy. He had life-long friends and sworn opponents like Robert F. Kennedy. He was a fanatic when it came to being on time and staying sober. He was proud and ultimately, this pride cost him his life.
In The Irishman, Hoffa is the ultimate embodiment of a man coming to terms with his own mortality. After doing four years of prison time and turning his back on the gangsters that helped him grow in power as president of the union for 15 years, Hoffa’s on his own. His extravagant temper filled with wild outbursts and blunt accusations soon sees him on the receiving end of serious threats. ”What don’t you people understand?” says Hoffa upon a confrontation with Pesci’s Bufalino. ”It’s not about money. This is my union.” As viewers, we witness Hoffa slowly but surely sink with the ship he so lovingly protected and fought for over the years. The man whose word used to be worth more than the president’s is not on a pedestal anymore. He’s become touchable. And instead of listening to Sheeran’s advice to step down and enjoy what his career brought him, Hoffa’s fighting spirit persists. Because that’s all he’s got. In the face of his own mortality, his life hanging on a very thin thread, Hoffa chooses to stay true to himself, to his legacy and reputation, unaware of the fact that the people out there to hurt him have no respect for such things. ”They wouldn’t dare,” he says.

vlcsnap-2019-11-29-23h22m12s169
A friendly warning.

The much talked about de-aging VFX technology contributes to the theme of mortality. Instead of looking at it from a purely technical standpoint, I encourage everyone to see past the hiccups and imperfections and incorporate them as part of the grand scheme of things. We see some of cinema’s greatest actors go through a process meant to rejuvenate them and help give the film a structured sense of narrative rather than have different, younger actors play the same parts and then as the story progresses, switch them with their older counterparts.
One cannot help but think about the inevitability of mortality as we see De Niro play what is supposed to be a twenty-year old soldier with the physique of a seventy-six year-old man, who can hardly lift up a heavy rifle. When forty-year old Hoffa is supposed to get up and storm out of a room in a frenzy, we see Pacino struggle to maintain his balance while walking away in a pair of slippers. It’s imperfect. But it fits. And it underlines the nature of these characters, and the people behind them.
As a fan, I see my idols have a hard time in doing what once came natural to them. I see De Niro, who used to transform his body for the sake of the art form, struggle with walking at a faster pace. I see Pesci, whom I remember from his hilarious stunts in Home Alone and his larger-than-life presence in films like Goodfellas and Casino, walk down a set of stairs with a clearly pained expression on his face. Even with the most sophisticated technology… You cannot stop the machine. You cannot stop life. As Bufalino tells Frank, when giving him one final yet life-altering order, ”It’s what it is.”

vlcsnap-2019-11-29-23h19m33s483
”Only three people have one of these… and only one of them is Irish.”

Was this Scorsese’s swan song? Certainly not (as he’s already preparing for Killers of the Flower Moon, set for filming in 2020). However, The Irishman is undoubtedly a testament to the careers of some of cinema’s finest artists. It is an epic confrontation with the past and a final stand-off with what is to come. Whatever that may be.

vlcsnap-2019-11-29-23h21m23s110
All we can do is choose our own headstones.

Wasted Talent

”You did a good thing for a bad man,” is one of the first things that Lorenzo, De Niro’s character in A Bronx Tale, tells his son, Calogero. This is also one of the first moral dilemmas we are presented with as we witness the coming of age of an Italian-American boy in the 1960s Bronx in De Niro’s directorial debut from 1993. What is most remarkable about this personal favorite of mine is how we get to experience, similarly to what I wrote here for Boyz n the Hood, the moral ambiguity of actions that certain characters must take in order to survive in a tough environment. A Bronx Tale is a perfect example of how cinema can be a source of life lessons and how as a medium it can challenge and test the audience through the journey of its characters.

vlcsnap-2019-10-27-15h30m06s798
De Niro’s Lorenzo, the local bus driver.

Based on Chazz Palminteri’s one-man play of the same title, A Bronx Tale tells the story of a young boy who must makes sense of his environment through the teachings of two very different men. One being his father, Lorenzo, and the other being the local gangster, Sonny (played by Palminteri himself). The latter takes Calogero under his wing after the boy refuses to testify against him in a murder case as the only witness. That’s when the boy proudly tells his father ”I didn’t rat, Dad. I did good, Dad. I did a good thing. Right, Dad?” and to his surprise Lorenzo gives him an answer that confuses him even more. ”You did a good thing for a bad man.” That seems to be the code on the streets of the Bronx.

vlcsnap-2019-10-27-15h30m38s735
Whether you say yes or no can make a difference.

De Niro’s character is one of his most fascinating ones and one that I feel doesn’t get talked about enough. In a tribute to his late father, Robert De Niro Sr. who passed away the year this film was released, De Niro delivers one of his most nuanced performances. This is certainly no Raging Bull, Taxi Driver nor Cape Fear, as the actor puts on the clothes of a regular bus driver working minimum-wage, with the sole interest of keeping his family safe and sound and his son away from trouble. But trouble in this part of New York is inevitable for a young boy like Calogero. And De Niro’s Lorenzo knows this. His vision of the world may be limited, he may be old-fashioned and prejudiced (in Lorenzo’s mind Italians should only marry among themselves), but he’s seen his fair share of pain and suffering around him and the movie does a brilliant job of communicating this to us. In a neighborhood of crooks, yes-men and gangsters, Lorenzo is one of the few to go against the tide and follow his own path. When Sonny, as a sign of gratitude for his son’s silence, offers Lorenzo some extra money under the table, Lorenzo does not hesitate in refusing the offer despite that his own wife admits afterwards, ”We could have used some extra money around here.” De Niro’s character is one that we don’t see very often nowadays. Perhaps it’s because he’s not contemporary in his attitude. Or maybe it’s because he’s just not cool enough. And that is also why as the years go by, Calogero finds himself drifting more and more towards Sonny, the king of the streets and as Calogero himself puts it ”My God down here.”

vlcsnap-2019-10-27-15h32m05s146
Sonny and the lucky kid.

Sonny is indeed the God of the Bronx. Even the local priest does not dare speak against him during confession. Unlike Lorenzo, Sonny oozes coolness and danger. His word is the Bible, and yet despite the prestige and respect that comes with being a boss, he is not the traditional boss we are used to seeing in films. He’s no Vito Corleone. He’s not a stone cold calculating machine. The fear he generates is not through actions but his words and the way he carries himself. His treatment of others is fair. He’s no bully nor psycho. And as we get to know him along with Calogero, his apprentice, we realize we are looking at him through a different lens. Throughout the run-time of the movie it becomes evident that both Lorenzo and Sonny are looked at from the same perspective – that of a father figure. They are put on the same pedestal. Working man and gangster. The lessons they teach Calogero come from different settings – one being the family home, the other being the streets – but they’re just as valuable. When asked whether it is better to be loved or feared, Sonny tells Calogero ”It’s nice to be both, but it’s very difficult. I would rather be feared. Fear lasts longer than love.” Meanwhile, Lorenzo earlier on in the movie points out, ”People don’t love him. They fear him. There is a difference.” 

vlcsnap-2019-10-27-15h33m34s376
”It don’t take much strength to pull a trigger, but try and get up every morning to work for a living!”

In his directorial debut, De Niro skillfully paints a vivid picture of racial tension, peer pressure and the de facto interlinked paths of fear and love. The world around Calogero is one filled with borders between blacks and whites and where one false move can lead to drastic consequences. Being loved out here is a privilege that not many can afford. But so is being feared. And Calogero can’t seem to find a compromise between the two. The world in A Bronx Tale is a separate world on its own, where rules are different and you best learn them fast. Yet, what is most admirable about the film is how the two characters, Lorenzo and Sonny, work towards the same goal: to keep Calogero away from danger, to keep him mindful of his surroundings. Sonny does it by disrupting the kid’s illusions and telling him that his baseball idol, Mickey Mantle, doesn’t give a shit whether Calogero can afford to pay his rent or not, so why should Calogero care about his batting average? Meanwhile, Lorenzo emphasizes the opposite, namely belief in ideals. His whole mantra revolves around believing in what is right, what is good and what is inspiring to us, as he keeps repeating to his son, ”The saddest thing in life is wasted talent.”

vlcsnap-2019-10-27-17h56m04s162
”You ever heard of Machiavelli?”

The two father figures in A Bronx Tale are at first sight polar opposites. The way they think, the way they act and the way they go about life couldn’t be more different. Yet their teachings compliment each other and help Calogero fill in the gaps. That is remarkable. Nowadays movies tend to stick to one train of thought because it is less risky and offers easier answers for the audience to grasp. A Bronx Tale, however, refuses to do so. The movie purposefully confronts Lorenzo and Sonny’s worldviews and makes us reflect on our own convictions and beliefs. The whole secret is finding the balance between the two teachings. Love and fear. Black and white. Working man and gangster.

vlcsnap-2019-10-27-15h34m13s656
”I don’t understand, Dad.”

How to Get Away with a Stinker

Many people have asked my opinion on what I consider a bad movie, or what makes a director bad. The answer to these two questions could have been simple: Michael Bay and his entire filmography, Zack Snyder and his superhero fascination, M. Night Shyamalan and a big chunk of his last few movies, but in this case my answer is different. My answer is based on the simple concept of ‘bad’. What makes a director ‘bad’? Take M. Night, for instance; he has made some very good movies (Unbreakable, The Sixth Sense) as well as some very, very, very bad ones (The HappeningAfter Earth). Fine. That is fine. Why? Because the man has his own vision, and as distorted and trashy as it can be at times, it is still his vision. His movies have a trademark Shyamalan tag attached to them, meaning no one else could have made them that way. Even in his biggest flops he showed character and style, like in The Village, where the story misses, but the character and gothic genre filmmaking do not. Then who do I consider a bad film director if not the ones I already mentioned, who are infamous for releasing well below mediocre films every two-three years? It is someone who is never mentioned in the conversation, and yet someone who is so mediocre and whose movies are so average in their attempt to be great that I cannot ignore the dismissal of this name: Scott Cooper.

OUT OF THE FURNACE
Scott Cooper directing Christian Bale in Out of the Furnace.

Who is Scott Cooper? Well, for starters he emerged in 2009 and got Jeff Bridges his first, well deserved Oscar, with the movie Crazy Heart, about the life of a failed country musician. Four years later he returned with Out of the Furnace, supported by a stellar cast (Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Willem Dafoe, Forest Whitaker and the late Sam Shepard), in order to tell the story of a steelworker in small town America who seeks to avenge his brother’s violent death. Then, 2015’s acclaimed and presumed ‘return to form’ by Johnny Depp, with the tale of Bostonian crime lord ‘Whitey’ Bulger in Black Mass, and finally, last year’s neo-western, Hostiles. Now, if someone unfamiliar with this man’s movies, looks at what I’ve just written, looks at the acting credits, the titles, the fact that I described some of these movies as ‘acclaimed’ and Oscar nominated, will think I’m out of my element calling Scott Cooper one of, if not the worst director working in Hollywood today. However, I stand by my opinion and here is why…

All those movies I just mentioned are average. Yes, they are average. From an objective point of view they are average and nothing can change that. Cooper has directed some of the best actors working today and helped one of the most iconic ones (Bridges) get his first Oscar, sweeping all major awards ceremonies. But… is he the one to congratulate? First of all, Crazy Heart is your typical Hollywood redemption story. A middle-aged failed country musician, struggling with alcohol, women and money, all at the same time, tries to make ends meet and taste what could turn out to be his last bittersweet drop of happiness and love. This story has Jeff Bridges written all over it, country legend, known for his heavy Southern accents and the walk of a man of the West, he is perfect for this part. And here is where the movie ends. Cooper limits himself to dressing up Bridges in country boots, putting him on a stage and letting him sing country tunes in a sleazy bar. When it comes to emotion and showing Bad Blake’s true colors (Bridges’ character), Cooper is helpless, lacking any sort of creativity, drive and understanding. It is all Bridges. Him and his deep, bear-like voice take over the character of a miserable drunk and elevate him to a protagonist for the ages, a man afraid to let go of his guitar and keep on with the rolling times.

tumblr_nou2r6DyDx1qetb0ho1_1280
The misery of Bad Blake.

Out of the Furnace, Cooper’s following feature film, could not even be saved by the multi-dimensional cast he was offered to work with. What could have been a thrilling experience, perhaps similar to No Country for Old Men, quickly turns into a vague, lifeless, predictable attempt at genre filmmaking. Cooper desperately tries to tell this simple revenge story as if he was handling a much more complicated project. The potential of this movie lies in its simplicity. Many indie movies have been capable of telling simple revenge stories (Blue Ruin for example, a brilliant indie effort from 2013) by sticking to the basics and focusing on what can be improved, instead of what can be changed. Cooper doesn’t get it, and it’s not even a proof of his ambition (there isn’t any to speak of), when he tries to combine multiple storylines and merge them into one (the steelworker brother, the soldier brother, the drug lord and the investigating police officer). Instead of creating an eerie, atmospheric thriller, Cooper gets away with a very shallow modern-day drama that fails under every aspect: action, emotion, suspense, timing and delivery of any sort of message. The film is not about brotherhood, it is not about corruption in America nor about the basic human instinct such as the art of survival. The only spark Out of the Furnace has to offer is a few sequences of bang-bang bloody action which don’t result in plot development. Once I was done watching this movie I suddenly realized what Scott Cooper is getting away with in broad daylight: a career in filmmaking; a career in shallow, B-type, empty and mediocre filmmaking, that specializes in pleasing the easily entertained crowds of viewers and leaving the critics with an average yet satisfied score.

11-out-of-the-furnace
What could have been a good thriller.

Unfortunately, Out of the Furnace wasn’t Cooper’s defining hit. No. His supposed masterpiece of mediocrity was released in 2015, carried by Johnny Depp’s deadpan, make-up covered, pale face and blue eyes – Black Mass is the title (which I also wrote about here). After failing in delivering a story of violence and crime set in present-day America, Cooper dives into the grimy, filthy underbelly of 1970s Boston, a city ruled not by the authorities, but by the omnipresent hand of a man named ‘Whitey’ Bulger, a ruthless killer who got caught in 2011 aged 81, after almost 20 years of being listed as one of the top most wanted men by the FBI. Now, one would think, here is a chance for Scott Cooper to prove his worth and redeem himself by turning to the gangster genre. Unfortunately, that’s not the case as Cooper has no sense of balance between the documentary side of the movie, where we follow fictionalized testimonies and confessions from associates, friends and Bulger’s family members, and the blue-collar, cold, thriller side of the movie, where Whitey is simply presented as a dumb, irrational monster who relies on violence as a means of expression in his daily life. Cooper loses any sort of control over the outcome of his film, twisting and turning and desperately trying to make this gangster story look interesting. ‘Look’ is the right word, since the movie is the opposite of interesting in storytelling terms, therefore, only the ‘look’, the design, cinematography and production come off as decent. Unfortunately, Black Mass is not an arthouse film, which means it cannot solely rely on the saying ‘style over substance’ as it sets out from the get-go to tell the story of who Bulger really was. And it is here that Cooper fails miserably, perhaps intimidated by his predecessors in the gangster genre such as Scorsese’s Goodfellas and  De Palma’s Carlito’s Way, he directs his movie with the attitude of a timid, shy twelve-year-old in awe of his biggest idols, and rightly so, but this causes the movie to lack character and identity. Critics raved about this movie, with Peter Travers leading the way, naming it a top 10 movie of 2015, but clearly failed to see that Cooper’s mob drama is nothing but a plotless Superbowl commercial, meaning this 2-hour long movie could have been limited to its teaser trailer, which in contrast had a certain energy to it, a tempo and character. Black Mass on its own is a mediocre showing disguised as a good rendition of a long-gone time period in American history, and another piece of evidence that indicates that Scott Cooper is not a good film director, although continuously hailed as one.

death-black-mass
A snapshot that sums up Black Mass: empty, violent, ugly to look at.

Last but not least, last year’s Hostiles could have been special. It should have been special and yet again, Cooper created a work of such mediocrity that even his biggest fans had to point out the major flaws of this preachy neo-western. In the hands of a more skilled director, the story of an Army officer escorting a dying Cheyenne war chief back to his tribal land could have turned out to be a major cinematic sensation, drawing inspiration from John Ford’s The Searchers, and considering westerns are quickly fading into oblivion in today’s world of Hollywood cinema. However, in Cooper’s hands this film becomes yet another phony attempt at selling a product instead of making a movie for people to watch and learn from. The director does, in fact, try to convey a message of some sort, related to the inherited violence and the insanity of war and destruction as well as man’s constant need of fighting for his own little piece of land, but the finished product is nothing but a mess of well shot images that amount to nothing other than a conclusion about the evil that lies in the heart of every single white man involved in the history of the making of the Wild West. Cooper’s eternal fascination with blood, gore and meaningless violence is what brings this movie down and prevents it from being a good directorial effort; it is not all about technique – it is about the ideas that spark the technique. Clearly, Cooper does not see anything beyond the simple act of violence. It is not fun (like in Tarantino’s films, or even Shane Black’s), it is not cold blooded (like in Scorsese’s pictures), it just is, for the sake of being.

contentimages1515172385662-1515172385662
Not a good Western.

So what is my major takeaway from this post? A bad director is someone who directs films without a purpose, without an idea of some kind, without belief. A bad director is someone who tries to pass his own movie as good, who makes it look pretty but does not look deeper and refuses to adjust its evident flaws (Nicolas Winding Refn is another one, although with a couple of good movies under his belt) not because of too much pride, but because of a critical lack of self-awareness regarding his/her own work. When I watch a film directed by Scott Cooper, I don’t feel anger nor satisfaction. I don’t feel suspense nor excitement. I don’t feel frustration. I feel nothing. And that is the worst feeling one can have when experiencing a film.

 

Black Mess

Today’s topic: what went wrong with this year’s Johnny Depp gangster drama, Black Mass. I’ve been thinking about tackling the subject of a wasted movie’s potential for a long time, sniffing around the negativity, trying to think of a nice way of putting all my thoughts into one single post. I waited for the right movie, a movie so fresh that people are still paying for the theater tickets. I got it. No other film has left me this disappointed this year. I’m talking about the highly anticipated, rumored as Johnny Depp’s comeback, the still-hot Scott Cooper vehicle, Black Mass. 

BM-FP-0016_2040.0
Meet James ‘Whitey’ Bulger. Get used to this face.

It’s a terrible feeling when you wait, and you wait some more, thinking to yourself that what you’re about to see is something special, and then after all the waiting, you are punched in the nose for your high hopes. Thousands, even millions saw the first trailer for this movie and their jaws dropped at the sight of the ice cold, make-up covered, brutally tough Johnny Depp as real life Boston crime lord, Jimmy ‘Whitey’ Bulger. Having read a lot about this intriguing ex- FBI most wanted list gangster, who in 2011 was finally caught in a parking lot in Santa Monica, California, after 16 years at large, made me thirsty for a movie adaptation. And it happened. But something went wrong. Something prevented this movie from being good. Not even great, but at least good. Not in this case. For wasting a highly interesting topic just look up this movie and you’ll see and know why. Scott Cooper has always had the wrong eye in directing his movies. In Crazy Heart (the performance that got Jeff Bridges the highly deserved Oscar) he sat back and let the music flow through the movie’s veins, losing control of what he was creating and making it a tiring almost two-hour watch. In the 2013 mediocre Out of the Furnace Cooper wasted an A-list cast to create, with his blessing, a lousy dark version of the American rural steelworker towns. And here again, Cooper’s direction looking almost intimidated by gangster epics like the darker Godfather series and the lighter-rocking Goodfellas, fails at delivering what could have been the tastiest dish of all year.

WBL207_153.tif
Biblical? Nah.

Violence. We love it. On screen it looks great. The bloodier, the merrier. The more violent character deaths, the more excited the viewer gets. Well, if there is something like repetitive, exhaustive, meaningless violence this film has it. Whatever the problem is (and there is a few) Whitey kills. Yes, the feared gangster was a feared murderer but he didn’t spend every single day shooting up possible ‘snitches’, strangling prostitutes, executing friends who got too drunk for his tastes (why even?) and beating strangers to a pulp leaving them in the middle of nowhere. No matter what happens, Bulger stands his ground by commiting violent crimes. And I have no doubt that it was really the case as he got charged with (at least) 19 murder cases, but there sure must have been more to him than that. Cooper and the writers seem to be fascinated by the cruel nature of Bulger, this way ignoring what could have been a different side to him. Yes, he was a loving father who lost his little son when the boy was six years old, but do we witness enough of that fatherly love? What we get is a scene where Bulger explains to the boy basically how to get away with a crime, and then a few scenes during which the mobster sits at the hospital and yells “fuck, fuck, fuck” at the news of his son’s death, insults his wife, threatens her and kicks a chair down. Is that all? Is that everything they have on him?

black-mass-trailer
Bang, bang and the movie’s over.

It feels poor. And it’s a shame because James ‘Whitey’ Bulger has been the second most wanted person on the face of the earth right after Osama Bin Laden for almost twenty years. The world is full of books, scripts, recordings, photographs that provide us a detailed description of this man’s character and the way he saw and walked the earth. And yet, in Black Mass it feels as if we’re watching a Wikipedia page, with the highlighted murders he committed and the way he stared at certain people. That’s why there is basically no plot: the writers feel intimidated by this towering figure of a born criminal and to spice things up, begin to concentrate more on Bulger’s FBI contact (since he was a federal informant, yes), John Connolly. Connolly is the lost sense of humanity and emotion that is squashed into the narrative to somehow try and carry the movie. As good as Joel Edgerton is, you can’t sell a convincing Boston accent when you’re Australian (and neither can you when you’re British, like Benedict Cumberbatch who plays Whitey’s brother). After some time, we realize we’re focusing more on Connolly than on the so-called protagonist. That’s because Johnny Deep comes on screen only to make a slight grin, look at the camera with his fake blue eyes and get dirty. It’s difficult and painful not to make a review out of this, because we got all the right ingredients.

Black Mass - Movieholic Hub
And the FBI sequences keep on dragging…

Let’s compare styles: Scorsese in Goodfellas introduces mobster Henry Hill by having some fun at it, by pushing in with the camera and adding some fast paced editing and Tony Bennett’s Rags to Riches, this way already telling us the kind of person Henry is: unpredictable, childish, fun, dangerous and a dreamer. What does Cooper do? He takes it slow, almost as if he was shooting a documentary. He presents us with a brooding cinematography that captures a dimly lit bar where Bulger sits and listens. Nothing wrong with a conversation but when for over forty seconds we get nothing more than “Hey, Sammy. Fuck you.” – “No, fuck you.” – “Ah, shut the fuck up.” – “What the fuck?” – “Yeah, fuck you.” It’s fine we get it, we’re in Boston’s underworld but don’t overwork it. Bulger is the one (as always) that keeps quiet and watches a man eat peanuts. He’s evidently disgusted and makes a (again, vulgar) remark to the man eating peanuts that he shouldn’t eat peanuts with his fat hands because if he eats those peanuts with his “fat fucking hands” he’s going  to put all his germs into the bowl of fucking peanuts. What do we learn from this? Better yet, who are we even watching? A man who likes to pick on the details? No, later on there is no underlining of that. No highlight. No flashback. Nothing. We’re watching what is supposed to be understood as: a monster.

black-mass-johnny-depp-whitey-situps-pointofgeeks-e1442805691618
As scary as Bulger is, he’s also boring.

Bulger does sit-ups, dresses in black, likes steaks and… what? That’s it you ask? Yes, that’s it. It’s all we get from the movie. Remember how in Goodfellas I talked about how great and yet twisted was the fact that the viewer grows fond of the gang, the family to which Henry Hill belongs to? In Black Mass we’re introduced to characters, middle men, dirty-hand workers who make no difference, they have no spirit, no personality. One minute they appear, the second they vanish. We wait for something tasty to bite on and well, we’re left feeling hungry and we stay that way until the very last credit rolls.

What The Departed managed to achieve in telling the story of South Boston’s mob by being a simple loose adaptation of a Hong Kong movie set in the US, is far superior than what we get from a movie that was supposed to tell us the story of the most notorious gangster in US history. And even Depp, as terrifying as he is, there is nothing natural about his performance, an iceberg of a character that is too primitive to watch. Wasted material. It’s a disappointing topic in the world of cinema, and a painful experience for every film buff around the globe.

Not even the Titanic could crash this iceberg.

Screenshot2015-04-24at5.17.03PM(2)A-4211
You guessed it: another execution…

Middle Man

Today’s topic: the raw realism of Goodfellas. The gangster genre is one that has been popular since the early 1930s, with the original Scarface and Public Enemy, and it went on to be recognized as one of the most well received genres of cinema. In the early 70s, the world and history met the grandeur of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, two films that are today known as the finest filmmaking achievements of all time. Then we had Scarface (1983), Once Upon a Time in America, The Untouchables, A Bronx Tale and Donnie Brasco. In the last decade or so we’ve met other contributions such as Road To Perdition and The Departed. It seems as if the lifestyle led by gangsters and no-do-gooders is something that appeals to audiences and sucks them right in. And we always hear people saying: “The Godfather is the best film ever made”  or “Scarface is so cool and so violent”, and of course they are great examples of a Hollywood way of making films that is slowly vanishing. However, I feel like we tend to get stuck in time. We love these movies because they show a world of gangsters that are noble, know how to respect the rules, murders are clean, and where there is no such thing as “get dirty”. It was back when the idea of the American dream was it its most powerful, most visible. What I intend to do is try and look at what is so mind blowing and refreshing about Martin Scorsese’s epic, Goodfellas. 

It all starts out with a bang!
It all starts out with a bang!

Wait, not epic. It’s not. Epic would mean that it’s a colossal hit that everyone knows and loves, just like The Godfather. It’s impossible not to like it, right? That’s why I prefer Goodfellas. I love it because it’s thought provoking and still is more innovative than what comes out of Hollywood these days. It’s a shocking portrayal of what seemed to many as the perfect way to live – money, women, cars, easy life – well no. Goodfellas denies the romantic qualities of the previous gangster movies. It’s like rock’ n ‘roll; it’s fast, loud, dirty and it smashes you over the head. It’s unexpected. Henry Hill’s story, that of a gangster who’s been the middle man in a large family for over twenty years and finally turned into witness protection after pointing out the bosses to the FBI, is a true story that is still looked upon as one of the most fascinating experiences ever told on film. And who would be better at directing it than the one and only, Martin Scorsese? Scorsese. Someone who’s seen it with his own eyes. Someone who lived surrounded by those kind of people. Someone who breathed the same air as they did. The director is the energy. The actors the power. The combination is deadly.

Enjoying freedom to the fullest.
Enjoying freedom to the fullest.

You can’t compare Goodfellas to anything. Not even Scorsese’s later gangster biopic, Casino (1995). It’s unlike any contribution to cinema. The groundbreaking direction is part of the unnerving realism; look at the role played by the tracking shots — when Henry hears about his girlfriend being disrespected by some hood, he parks his car in the driveway, sees the guy in the rearview mirror, packs his gun and exits the car. He walks toward the hood with fury burning in his eyes and how does Scorsese capture it? In one single tracking shot. He shoots Henry walking up to the guy and bashing his skull in with the butt of his gun, and then going back to his girlfriend’s house in one take. Would it have made a difference if it was filmed with many single takes? Yes, it would have been the typical beat-up scene we find in almost every movie and TV show. Yet here, Scorsese decided to film it as if we were witnessing the scene from next door, leaving us with our mouths open, cringing. Even the cinematographer, Michael Ballhaus, has said in an interview that the particular scene I just mentioned was the hardest job he’s ever done – he’d close his eyes every time Ray Liotta’s character hit the hood’s forehead with the butt of his revolver, ruining the whole take. That’s what I call riveting filmmaking. To make an impression and leave it there forever. Leave an unwashable stain that will haunt us for days to come.

Watch out, he's coming.
Watch out, he’s coming.

On the other hand, what strikes me the most about this mad classic is the way it refuses to follow any conventions. It doesn’t obey any rules, any laws. It’s pure improvisation of the best kind. Almost everyone has heard of the “How am I funny?” scene (if not, youtube it , or better yet, watch the movie). To think that it was unscripted, 100% improvised on the spot is something that we hardly comprehend in a world where movies are played out word by word, sentence by sentence. What’s really funny about that scene is that it’s true. For a fact, Pesci (playing the character of Tommy) was a waiter in a Little Italy bar and happened to get caught in this kind of situation, when laughing at a wise guy’s joke and then having to face what was an unpredictable reaction that could have ended in a brawl or even a shoot-out. It’s unpredictability that counts here. There are no domino effects. It’s real life on the screen. Beating up a union boss, burying him in the woods and then, after six months, having to dig up the stinking body again. The only rule is: get dirty and survive.

Lovely dinner.
Lovely dinner.

The characters, another plus. Sure, The Godfather’s Clemenza or Luca Brasi, Carlito’s Way Pachanga, Donnie Brasco’s Sonny Black are all interesting, tasty characters but they don’t feel real. They are either the typical behind-the-back-sneaky  or the good-friend type of characters. Goodfellas, being a true story, spices everything up by reminding us how everyone can go to hell in the matter of a second. Not even the madman Tommy can hide. We are immediately introduced to this big family, again in one long POV tracking shot of Henry entering the restaurant. It’s a rite of passage for the viewer. We meet Frankie Carbone, Fat Andy, Frankie the Wop, Freddy No-nose, Nicky Eyes, Mickey Francese, Jimmy Two Times, and the list goes on. In the matter of a one minute long single take we greet a whole world of different characters that together form one big cruel family that well, unfortunately, we get attached to. Yes, we grow fond of them. At least I do. Because it’s a memorable vision of a world that I can almost touch. It’s out there, Scorsese reminds us. And it’s real because it can easily disappear. When it comes to eliminating any possible witness, there is no mercy. Family members are all treated the same. A bullet into the back of your head, a car explosion, a quick stabbing, whatever. It always comes down to dead bodies.

Listening to fascinating stories told by the clown, Tommy.
Listening to fascinating stories told by the clown, Tommy.

And to make it short , it’s also how music is used to impact the viewing and increase the storytelling drive. We start off with 1950’s tunes such as Rags To Riches or Sincerely and go at full speed through Mannish Boy and Layla, increasing the horsepower and smashing into the wall with the furious Rolling Stones and crazy Sid Vicious. The music IS the movie. It’s the engine that roars and doesn’t stop. It introduces us to characters, situations and events. We slow down whenever there is a wedding or a romantic kiss and jump right back in when mobsters kick the hell out of a poor sob or when we enter a truck where among the hanging frozen ribs there is the body of a frozen Frankie Carbone. The music is the soul of Goodfellas that craps on our heads whenever we try to predict what’s next. The helicopter paranoia scene at the end of the movie is what it is thanks to the brilliant use of editing and an excellent song choice. It makes us believe what we see, it makes us feel what Henry feels; the paranoia of a scared, coked out mobster. He is coked out. We are coked out.

Is that helicopter following me?
Is that helicopter following me?

Don’t obey the standards. Don’t listen to the past. Be inventive. Look at it differently. Push yourself to the edge. That’s what Scorsese says. That’s why I love him. That’s why we all love him. He’s not afraid of his ideas.

Push yourself to the edge and beyond, you funny guy.

It all ends with a bang!
It all ends with a bang!