What qualities are we picking up on when we call a movie “epic”? Is it primarily about the span of geographic or temporal distance, a simple matter of runtime, the number of characters depicted, or the weight of their actions on the film’s broader world? What most will likely find vexing about Martin Scorsese’s long-in-development opus, The Irishman, is that despite its sprawl it is emphatically un-epic. Over its three and a half hours, virtually none of its characters evince any measurable change or growth; the action is largely episodic, and even shifting period details are kept strictly on the periphery; we feel nothing for either the victims nor perpetrators of mob violence. The Irishman is a many-layered nesting doll where every layer is identical — and identically hideous — yet it is not without purpose.
Scorsese shows his cards early. In the film’s “present-day” (which we can surmise as roughly the early 00s), an elderly Frank Sheeran (Robert de Niro) begins to tell us his life story — first in voiceover, then in direct address to camera. Even as a storyteller guiding us through his own life, Frank is seemingly no longer cogent enough to even stick with a consistent mode of narrative delivery. A real-life World War II vet turned truck driver turned high-level mob enforcer, Frank’s life (the details of which are derived from Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses, the veracity of which remains a matter of some dispute) would seem to possess the scope and dynamic range we tend to associate with the rags-to-riches-to-ruin mob stories Scorsese is still most widely known for.
Yet, as we move from Frank’s humble beginnings shifting slabs of meat around at the behest of mobsters in the Bufalino crime family (especially Joe Pesci’s Russell Bufalino) to more lucrative and violent work, there’s no grandeur, no glamorous upward mobility, no speeches about This Thing Of Ours. Frank simply kills and intimidates on-demand and largely without thought, like someone checking off items on a grocery list. Even when Al Pacino swaggers into the movie as the infamous (and infamously “missing”) Jimmy Hoffa, the higher stakes never translate into rising action. Frank’s trajectory is a straight, flat line from one ghoulish task to another, in service of nothing more than accumulation.
For those looking to scrutinize The Irishman’s costly reliance on digital de-aging technology to render the younger versions of its principal cast: in truth, after the initial shock of De Niro’s first de-aged appearance, the effects are fairly seamless. There are none of the dead-eyed, uncanny-valley effects that earlier stabs at the same effect carried (think back to the opening sequence of Tron: Legacy), though there’s a slight glassiness to some of the skin textures on De Niro in particular. At any rate, after a scene or two passes, the effect ceases to be a distraction, which is perhaps the ultimate compliment.
What viewers are far more likely to take issue with is the movie’s complete abandonment of traditional three-act structure; instead, Scorsese and screenwriter Steven Zaillian favor a parade of craven behavior and violent acts loosely scattered across a couple of decades, with the only obvious markers of time coming from the aging effects and daughter Peggy’s progression from childhood (where she’s played by Lucy Gallina) to adulthood (Anna Paquin). In a move that is perfectly reflective of the movie’s concerns, Peggy is the moral center of The Irishman, yet she’s never more than a peripheral figure. At every stage of Frank’s life, she’s the only person in his orbit who never excuses his behavior nor feels comfortable profiting from it. Yet, there’s also a strange kind of realism in how she treats Hoffa — a figure nearly as venal and corrupt as her father — with warmth; she witnesses Frank brutally beating a man in her childhood, but she never sees Hoffa do anything untoward, and Frank is on some level forever damned by this simple gap in perception.
Even when Pacino’s Hoffa enters the scene, with the JFK assassination and the associated murmurs of a conspiracy that necessarily follow, there’s never a sense that we’re getting wrapped up in a grand narrative in which Frank is a secret, key player. What’s radical about The Irishman is how it renders seemingly huge, seismic events as just more banalities to endure and make small situational adjustments around. Frank never reflects on his actions, what they might mean, or the crucial role he winds up playing in events that have a social impact far beyond his own life; he simply gravitates towards those willing to use him as a blunt instrument, and then does as he’s told. He behaves more like a corporate functionary than a traditional, self-aggrandizing movie gangster.
This dynamic plays out all the way until Frank’s twilight days, which take over the movie’s final stretch and end up as the sneaky punchline to the entire project. Scorsese has been repeatedly accused of glorifying immorality; while this accusation has never held up to much scrutiny, The Irishman makes plainer than ever that Scorsese is one of the most overtly moralistic filmmakers we have. The Irishman has no interest in making these characters’ trespasses seem worthwhile or even particularly interesting. Frank is a spiritually empty yes-man, practically an automaton, and there is no reward waiting for him at the end of his days, no sacred brotherhood to keep him company. There is only a casket to select and days to count down. Even Frank’s most seemingly laudable quality — his loyalty to those who have lifted him up, materially speaking — seems more a product of laziness than anything else.
The cumulative effect of The Irishman’s 210 minutes is that of a purging, a cleansing counter-argument to the stylistic grandeur of Casino and Goodfellas. There are no Rolling Stones needle drops, no scenes of creative bloodletting, no clever editing schemes. In their place, there remains only one man’s attempt to make his long life of amorality add up to anything at all. (That’s not to say there aren’t dazzling, formally inventive moments, especially one involving a set of car bombings.) In the movie’s most shattering scene, Frank is shamed into calling a close relative of someone he’s killed; it’s the one and only time he’s forced to come face to face with his own actions. De Niro’s stammering, pathetic, ineffectual offers of condolence are as fine a thesis statement as The Irishman is willing to offer: the world is full of bad actors with nothing to say. Sometimes they even get their own movies.
Sam Mendes Creates a Rare Cinematic Experience with ‘1917’
War movies have been a constant trend in cinema since the beginning of film. From black and white propaganda pieces during World War I and II to grand, ultra-realistic, modern dramas like Saving Private Ryan, war films have intrigued filmmakers and audiences alike for over 100 years. There’s a long list of films that have succeeded in recreating the horrors of fighting on the frontlines while telling a captivating story of heroism. Telling an emotionally gripping tale combined with some visually stunning filmmaking, 1917 can now be added to that list, and is nothing short of an incredible achievement.
Directed and co-written by Sam Mendes, and starring Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay, 1917 tells the story of two British soldiers during World War I that are given orders to personally deliver a message to a battalion off in the far distance. The message: to call off an attack that will result in the death of thousands, including one of the soldier’s brothers, should they fail to make it in time. Early on the two soldiers walk swiftly through crowded trenches; one of them, dragging behind yells, “Shouldn’t we think about this?” The other doesn’t reply. There’s no time to think about it. He carries on forward without looking back. The two had just been given orders, and time is now their worst enemy.
It’s this sense of urgency and persistence that drives 1917. Every minute is critical, and every moment feels dire. The two soldiers constantly push forward despite the overwhelming odds, as the life of thousands are in the lone hands of these two young men. The threat of failure is real, and 1917 never allows the audience to forget that.
Chapman and MacKay give wonderfully human performances as the main protagonists, Lance Corporal Blake and Lance Corporal Schofield. The audience gets to know the two men through little bits of conversation amid all the tension of getting closer to enemy lines. Their deepest and darkest secrets are never revealed, yet their actions provide reasons to care about them. The two men have their differences, but it’s clear that they want to help each other see the mission to its end. Their loyalty to one another and to the mission relentlessly drives them forward, and ultimately makes it easy for the audience to hope these characters succeed.
What really sets 1917 apart from other war epics is the masterful directing by Sam Mendes. The film creates the illusion throughout that the audience is watching a single continuous shot. From the first shot until the last, the focus never strays from its protagonists, allowing the audience to experience every step as it’s taken. Aside from the characters moving into a dark trench or behind a tall structure, it can be really tough to tell just how long each take is; where the director says “action” and “cut” is blurred to a point of fascination here, and though audiences have seen prolonged shots of war in past films, this is on another level. Combined with some brilliant pacing and jaw-dropping action sequences, 1917 never loses grip of its audience, as everything is seen without pause.
It’s also worth noting that every shot is elevated by a phenomenal score by Thomas Newman (who has worked with Mendes before on Skyfall). It seems that the goal here was not only to increase the intensity and drama of each scene, but also to allow the audience to feel exactly what the characters are feeling at all times. Whether the soldiers are walking through crowded trenches, cautiously cornering buildings, or taking a brief moment to catch their breath, every bit of what they’re feeling and just how their fast their hearts are pumping is translated. The music always feels natural, even in its most dramatic moments, and it deserves high praise for complimenting Mendes’ story so well.
1917 is one of the most unique movie-going experiences in recent memory. It takes the war movie genre and does something no one has ever seen before, which is extremely difficult with so many memorable war films in cinematic history. With 1917 Sam Mendes has created an unforgettable experience that needs to be seen on the biggest screen, and it deserves to be ranked among the greatest war films of all time.
With ‘Road to Perdition,’ Sam Mendes showed another side of Tom Hanks
In his long, distinguished career, one thing Tom Hanks hasn’t done a lot of on screen is dispassionately shoot people. Sure, in Bonfire of the Vanities he hit a kid with his car, and in Cloud Atlas he threw someone off the roof of the building. And yes, he played a soldier in both Saving Private Ryan and the Vietnam part of Forrest Gump, and there was a third-act gunfight in his 1989 cop/dog comedy Turner & Hooch. But the one and only time Hanks has played a full-on murderer was in Road to Perdition, director Sam Mendes’ 2002 meditation on fathers, sons, crime, and the legacies of violence.
Naturally, Hanks being Hanks, Mendes’ film positions his Michael Sullivan not as an irredeemable monster, but rather a humanized character who may not be beyond redemption (the film’s poster tagline was “Pray for Michael Sullivan.”)
Set in the 1930s and adapted from a first-rate screenplay by David Self, Road to Perdition tells the story of Sullivan, a mob enforcer in Rock Island, Ill., who works for local crime boss Rooney (Paul Newman), the man who raised him. Frequently dispatched to bump off Rooney’s rivals, Michael is committed to not allow his young son, Michael Jr. (future Arrowverse actor Tyler Hoechlin), to go down the same path in life he did.
When the young Michael witnesses his father committing a murder, it leads to a chain of tragic events that has the two Michaels on the road to Chicago to make a deal with Al Capone’s crew (in the person of his henchman, played in one scene by Stanley Tucci), and eventually on the run from a rival hitman (Jude Law.) Meanwhile, Rooney’s jealous son, Connor (a pre-Bond Daniel Craig), schemes against him.
Road to Perdition attaches a violent crime plot to considerations of sin and specific references to Catholicism, which is something that directors from Martin Scorsese to Abel Ferrera have done for decades. But Mendes’ film finds a new way to tell that particular story by focusing it on the gangster’s young son.
Road to Perdition, which came out in the summer of 2003, was Mendes’ second film, and his first after 1999’s Best Picture-winning American Beauty. It’s the better film, thanks to a strong script and the work of a great cast, but more than that, it’s absolutely visually stunning in a counter-intuitive 1:33 to 1 aspect ratio. The film’s final sequences, of both the rain-drenched gunfight and the denouement on the beach, are among the most beautiful cinema of the 2000s.
The film won the Best Cinematography Oscar for Conrad L. Hall, the third of his career, although sadly Hall passed away before the Oscar was awarded; it was accepted on his behalf by his son, Conrad W. Hall. Hall’s Oscar was the only one the film won after it was nominated for six, although not including Best Picture or Best Actor.
Road to Perdition came at the front end of Hanks’ nearly 20-year Oscar nomination drought, between Cast Away and this year’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor. But Road to Perdition is an underrated Hanks performance. Even beyond all the murder, it’s very understated, and much more strong/silent than is typical of Hanks’ work. He also wears a hat most of the time, which Hanks doesn’t often do.
Paul Newman was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for what would be his final on-screen role, although his voice continued to be used in Pixar’s Cars movies, even after his death. As for Daniel Craig as Connor, he’s playing a character who in today’s parlance would be called a “failson,” and it’s a role that he undoubtedly has been too big a star for just a few years later.
Sam Mendes has had something of an uneven career. His first film, American Beauty, won Best Picture, but its reputation has somewhat suffered over time for reasons fair and unfair. He’s directed great James Bond movies (Skyfall), and not-so-great ones (Spectre.) He’s made small films that were decent (Away We Go) and big ones that were disastrous (Revolutionary Road). But while he’s getting some of his best attention for 1917, which has emerged as an Oscar frontrunner, Road to Perdition stands as his most complete and satisfying work.
‘Color Out of Space’ is Pure Cosmic Horror
Festival de Nouveau Cinema 2019
Color Out of Space stands out as one the best direct adaptations of Lovecraft’s work.
Even before a meteor streaks out of the sky, Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space firmly establishes an atmosphere of alien, otherworldly dread. Opening on a fog-shrouded forest dripping with foreboding atmosphere, Stanley evokes the spirit of the controversial author in a way few filmmakers have, and the use of direct quotes from the short story further cements this as a love-letter to Lovecraft and his work. But Color isn’t just a slavish ode to the influential writer and his cosmic horror creations; the South African director also injects just enough of himself into the film to create something that builds upon the core of Lovecraft’s story, maintaining that kernel of pulp horror while introducing elements that feel wholly personal to the filmmaker. For this and many other reasons, Color Out of Space stands out as one the best direct adaptations of Lovecraft’s work, and one of the most engrossing genre movies this year.
The film by and large maintains the narrative core of the original, recombining elements to suit the change in medium, but staying quite faithful otherwise. Nic Cage stars as Nathan Gardner, who has moved his wife and two children to a secluded country home to get away from urban life. The Gardner family’s pastoral bliss is interrupted by a meteor that strikes their farm in the dead of night, and both their home and their very bodies begin to change soon after.
Unsurprisingly for a film with the hands of Lovecraft, Stanley, and Cage on the wheel, Color is often quite a strange experience, rife with disparate influences and odd touches. Nathan’s daughter, Lavinia, is a practicing witch, which is a story element that could only have come from Stanley, a magician himself. The Gardner family are also trying their hand at Alpaca farming — a bewildering plot element that feels like it could have been one of Cage’s notoriously eccentric fancies, right down to the brief lesson in Alpaca milking. Of course, Lovecraft’s passion for unknowable cosmic terrors is draped over all of this. There’s a wonderful atmosphere of dread and the unknown, about as pure an expression of Lovecraft as one could hope for in a contemporary setting. You’d think it would all make for a disjointed mishmash, but it all gels quite nicely, with the quirky family coming off as endearing more often than not.
Color Out of Space is one of the most engrossing genre movies this year.
There are a few distracting, odd moments, like Lavinia’s turn to self-scarring in a desperate ritual to avert disaster. It largely isn’t commented on, and her sudden appearance with arcane runes carved into her flesh doesn’t end up feeling like the important story or character beat it probably should have. Likewise, Cage’s performance is on the eccentric side, with odd mannerisms and a truly strange accent taking over as the Gardner patriarch begins to go off the deep end. But then, that’s half the fun when it’s Cage we’re talking about.
Like so much of Lovecraft’s work, Color Out of Space deals with the intrusion of the unknowable and alien into the mundane waking world. While other works have had this manifest in the form of eldritch space gods or croaking fish-people, Color instead uses an alien environment as the intruder. While Stanley clearly isn’t working with a massive budget, this idea is still used to create some stunning environments as the Gardner farm’s transformation progresses, with the climax offering some of the most engaging visuals in recent memory. There’s also some truly unsettling body horror, more gruesome and explicit than anything from the story, but an organic fit for the material. Color Out of Space is Stanley’s first feature-length fiction film in around fifteen years, and by all indications, he hasn’t lost his edge. For both fans of Lovecraft and the director’s own works, there’s much to see and love here. The visuals are breathtaking, the atmosphere sumptuous, and it’s Lovecraft to the core with just enough original madness thrown in.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on October 14, 2019, as part of our coverage of the Festival du Nouveau Cinema.
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