Robert De Niro

The Irishman

16/11/19

Martin Scorcese is one of our greatest living film directors. The partnership he’s forged with Robert de Niro – from Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, through to King of Comedy and Raging Bull, right up to Casino in 1995 – has produced some of the most unforgettable moments in cinema history. So it beggars belief to learn that the only studio with pockets deep enough to finance their latest based-on-real-events collaboration is TV streaming service, Netflix. Happily, Edinburgh’s Filmhouse has the rights to show it on the big screen, and it is no great surprise to see this Saturday afternoon showing jammed to the rafters.

The Irishman in question is Frank Sheeran (De Niro), World War II veteran turned hitman, mob player and influential labour union official. When we first meet him, a tracking camera finds him sitting in a care home, white haired and frail, talking about his experiences, perhaps to Charles Brandt, on whose book this is based. Sheeran explains how, as a younger man, he met up with powerful mobster, Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and was taken under his wing; how he ‘painted houses’ for Bufalino (a code term for performing executions); how he was eventually handed a key role in the powerful Teamster’s Union, where he became a close friend and confidente of the union’s President, Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).

Scorcese’s film is a study of the innocuous nature of evil, how truly heinous people exert their influence upon society, and how their bloodstained hands are in evidence upon the political landscape. It also demonstrates how, in this Machiavellian world, no one can truly trust anyone, because there will always come a time when that trusted person will be surplus to requirements. The film regularly features onscreen credits detailing the eventual demise of these players: shot in the head, shot in the back, knifed, bludgeoned and in some cases ‘disappeared.’ Very few manage to live to old age.

It’s a delight to see De Niro finally back in a role worthy of his talents. His Frank Sheeran is a stolid, strangely humble figure, who says little but shows so much through his troubled gaze. The acting throughout is totally naturalistic and there’s unexpected humour to be found in the deliberate clumsiness of the dialogue. The much discussed ‘de-aging’ technology is flawless; after the first transition from old De Niro to middle-aged De Niro, I forget it’s happening and am just happy believe that I’m watching a feature shot over decades. It’s also lovely to see De Niro and Pacino working together for the first time since Heat, and to see the great Joe Pesci exercising the kind of acting chops we haven’t seen since Good Fellas.

This is a man’s world. The female characters don’t get an awful lot to do here and it’s irksome to see Anna Paquin, as Sheeran’s troubled daughter, Peggy, reduced to seven words of dialogue. Maybe Scorcese’s point is that women were generally excluded from meaningful conversation in this era, but I wanted the catharisis of seeing her properly confront her father for what she’s witnessed over her childhood. It’s my only real criticism – but an important one, I think.

A word of warning. The film weighs in at a bladder-challenging three hours and thirty-five minutes and the problem is, there’s no obvious point to slip away to the loo. Could it be shorter? Yes, undoubtedly – but it’s to the film’s great credit that I manage to stay in my seat right to the final poignant frame. Those with a decent sized telly and a subscription to Netflix can watch it, with toilet breaks, from next week.

But if you can see it on the big screen, grab the opportunity. And all credit to Netflix for making this happen.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

 

 

Joker

05/10/19

Joker arrives in the UK amidst a deluge of controversy. To some minds, it’s a work of genius. To others, it’s a dangerous and divisive polemic that invites troubled souls to indulge in their darkest, most dangerous fantasies. To my mind, the film belongs fully in the former slot, but it would be naïve to suggest that it’s not a searing indictment of American society, and that it doesn’t feel suspiciously like a call to arms. Though the names of a couple of films on a cinema marquee place the action in 1981, make no mistake: this is all about the America of today – and it’s not a pretty picture. The rich corporations rule this Gotham while the poor, the sick and the dispossessed are marginalised and brushed under the carpet.

Joaquin Phoenix puts in an extraordinary performance in the central role. He’s Arthur Fleck, a scrawny, malnourished loser, living with his ageing mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), in a dilapidated apartment in Gotham City. Arthur dreams of being a successful comedian, but lacks the ability to understand jokes or even deliver the routines he writes, since he suffers from a condition that makes him laugh involuntarily at random intervals. He earns a crust as a street-clown and children’s entertainer but, even in these roles, he’s beset by problems, picked on by street gangs and openly mocked by his fellow clowns. Meanwhile, he fantasises hopelessly about his neighbour, Sophie (Zazie Beets), and fills the empty hours watching his chat show idol, Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), on TV. But the cruelty he experiences on an almost daily basis is building something uncontrollable deep within him… something that will eventually inspire others to follow him.

Director and co-writer Todd Philips, previously best known for lame buddy comedy The Hangover, has really struck a powerful chord here. His reimagining of the Joker’s origin story is bleak but compelling stuff and, despite Phoenix’s dazzling starburst at the film’s core, the supporting characters are all well drawn and the hellish cityscapes in which the story unfolds are strikingly shot. Throw in a brooding musical score by Hildur Guönadóttir and you have a movie that grips like a vice from start to finish. The influences are evident and clearly not accidental. Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy are both openly referenced, and eagle-eyed film fans will also spot a brief homage to Sidney Lumet’s Network. It’s lovely also to see De Niro in a serious role for the first time in what seems like ages.

It’s ironic to note that this film goes straight to the top of my favourite DC movies, particularly as it doesn’t feature a superhero of any description – unless you count a glimpse of the infant Bruce Wayne, who will of course grow up to be Joker’s main adversary – and, doubly ironic, when you consider that my previous favourite was The Dark Knight, which also featured a memorable Joker in Heath Ledger. I guess the simple truth is that the Joker has overshadowed Batman in most of the films they’ve featured in together; he’s just a more interesting character.

Joker is a must-see: a brilliant evocation of an American city at flashpoint. The central message may trouble you – indeed, it really should trouble you – but this is giant steps ahead of most of the superhero stuff that’s currently out there.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

 

 

Our Boys

13/08/18

PQA Venues, Riddle’s Court, Edinburgh

In the ward of a military hospital, a group of injured soldiers are recuperating from a variety of injuries. Keith (Christopher Lowry) is suffering from mysterious leg pains which the doctors seem unable to correctly diagnose. Ian (Michael Larcombe) has been so badly injured by a sniper’s bullet, he can barely form words. Parry (Charlie Quirke) has lost some toes, Mick (Alastair Natkiel) has recently been circumcised for ‘health reasons’, while Joe (Declan Perring), the longest serving inmate, sees himself as the wheeler-dealer of the group, forever wangling perks for the others, forever pulling strings on their behalf – and we do not learn what has actually happened to him for quite some time…

Into this powder keg limps Posh (Nick Seenstra), a young trainee officer currently suffering from the indignity of a pilonidal abscess. He is immediately seen as an outsider, a threat to the squaddies whose space he will now be sharing. Playwright Jonathan Lewis has first hand experience of the situation, having spent time himself in a military hospital in Woolwich.

This is an intensely masculine drama, where at times the levels of testosterone bubbling away onstage threaten to explode into the audience. Though it deals with the very serious issues of PTSD and the callous way in which disabled squaddies are casually tossed onto the scrapheap, it’s also periodically very funny. A sequence spoofing Robert De Niro’s The Deerhunter is hard to resist and so is the scene where the lads lay on a birthday party for Ian, only to discover – well, I won’t spoil it for you. It’s certainly not all laughs though. When somebody tips off the authorities about the presence of illegal alcohol on the ward, suspicion inevitably falls on Posh; of course he’s going to revert to type – he’s a would-be officer, right? But is he really to blame?

The performances here are all pretty good, though Natkiel’s Mick is a particular delight, forever managing to say the wrong thing at the wrong time in a wheedling Brummie accent. Be advised, this important play’s hard-hitting conclusion will surely send you out into the night with a lump in your throat and a tear in your eye.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Joy

Unknownimages

29/12/15

David O Russell seems to have the knack of creating great films from fairly unpromising material – Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle are two movies that rose far above their IMDB outlines. On paper, the true life story of Joy Mangano, the woman who invented the ‘Miracle Mop’, might suggest that the average viewer should take along a pillow in order to sleep comfortably through the whole experience. But Joy is actually a riveting slice of cinema, made especially enjoyable by a luminous central performance by Jennifer Lawrence.

When we first meet Joy she’s a child, obsessed with building imaginary worlds out of scraps of paper; but very soon, she’s grown up, stuck in a dead end job, and divorced from her husband Tony (Edgar Ramirez) who still lives in the basement and shares parental responsibility for their young children. Joy’s soap-opera-obsessed Mother, Terry (Virginia Madsen) refuses to leave her room, while her wayward husband Rudy (Robert De Niro) has just insisted on moving back into the family home after breaking up with his latest partner. All-in-all, this has to be one of the most dysfunctional families in America and Joy is the one tasked with making everything run as smoothly as possible.

In the midst of the chaos, she gets an idea for a self-wringing mop and persuades the rest of the family, plus Rudy’s hard headed but minted new girlfriend, Trudy (Isabella Rossellini) to back her invention with hard cash. But the path to bringing it to reality is not an easy one and there are shady business people out there queuing up to steal her idea. Joy soon discovers that if she’s going to take her dream to fruition, she’s going to have to be as tough as the sharks she’s sharing the water with…

Russell’s take on the story is quirky, assured and never loses its sense of pace. There are great supporting performances from the ensemble cast (how lovely to see De Niro finally getting a decent role after a string of one-note cameos) and Bradley Cooper also shines as QVC pioneer, Neil Walker. But make no mistake, this is Lawrence’s movie and she makes the most of it. The camera loves her in this and you will too.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney