Film Review: “The Irishman”

Starring: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Rated: R
Running Time: 209 minutes
Netflix

There’s a lot of background noise surrounding Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman.” On one hand, you have the general movie-going crowd groaning over the stuffed runtime, and on the other hand, you have industry insiders bemoaning the dispute that Netflix has had with cinemas. In a lot of ways, these issues stem from an older generation, wondering why they need to sit through a movie this long or would want to seek out a movie that isn’t at their local conglomerate movie theater. These feel like such miniscule problems when you watch this film and realize it’s one of the best movies of 2019.

When we first meet Frank Sheeran (De Niro), he’s beside himself in a nursing home. No one pays any mind or bothers talking to the WWII veteran turned truck driver turned hitman. He has a wild story to tell, but no one to tell it to. So, he tells it to the audience. It begins in 1950’s Pennsylvania, where his stonewalling in court earns the respect of local gangster, Russell Bufalino (Pesci). The two quickly develop a bond and appreciation, so Bufalino starts having Frank do odd jobs, not petty crimes mind you, but murder. Frank makes a big enough splash that he’s soon introduced to infamous teamster, Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). That’s when things get weird and violent.

Unlike Scorsese’s previous crime and mob movies, this film moves at a confident, quiet pace. It’s not sexually bombastic like “Wolf of Wall Street,” or violently speedy like “Goodfellas.” It has a lot to say and it’s going to take its God damn time. It has two and a half decades to cover, along with various flashbacks, and flashbacks within flashbacks. The narrative structure is built around the most shocking revelation of this movie, which most anyone with an understanding of criminal history in the U.S. should know before turning this movie on, but just in case, I won’t reveal it. Despite the lengthy runtime and the years of story the film pours over, this movie is rarely boring.

Scorsese is a master at making overly long films. He makes three hours seem like a walk through the park. It’s the style in which he shoots, the way he tells the character’s story and the outlandishness that he captures on screen. It’s almost like he taps into this primal ID, making us feast on the depravity of others. But “The Irishman” takes on small, but major step towards a different path. “Goodfellas” or “Wolf of Wall Street” doesn’t end well for the film’s antagonists. Their punishment is generally a mundane end to their life, but “The Irishman” takes it a step further. It shows that this wild lifestyle, filled with action and fun, ends alone. The final 30 minutes are bittersweet.

It unfolds in such an interesting way, that we become more wrapped up in Frank’s life and how he manages to balance these violent side gigs with a picturesque home life, with a wife and kids. We get little breadcrumbs about the Bufalino crime family and how much their tentacles have penetrated the East Coast. We also get a lot of intriguing political dramas as Pacino pushes the limits of overacting through Hoffa. Pacino never quite reaches the unnecessary acting heights of a film like “Scent of a Woman,” but he comes precariously close. Hoffa is crafted in such a flawed manner, that you come to sympathize and loathe him from scene-to-scene. Meanwhile, Pesci, in his most reserved role, is just as menacing as ever behind the wrinkles of Bufalino. There’s a lot of creative supporting work here as well from the likes of Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale and Harvey Keitel.

Putting a sweeping epic like this on Netflix seems bizarre to many. Decades ago, folks would have lined up around the block to see this film and theaters would have slapped an intermission in the middle so that people could refill on sugar drinks and salty popcorn. Instead this movie will be watched by people on their TVs at home, their computers, or even on their smartphone. There are a lot of people wondering why this film isn’t being shown the classic way. Maybe Scorsese recognizes the direction the industry is heading. He recently caught flack or making a negative comment about Marvel films, even though they were grossly taken out of context in the never-ending effort to satisfy today’s outrage culture. “The Irishman” feels like a bookend to a beloved genre, as Scorsese reflects on his past and says goodbye to the murderous crooks that made his career.

Film Review: “Silence”

Starring: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver and Liam Neeson
Directed By: Martin Scorsese
Rated: R
Running Time: 161 minutes
Paramount Pictures

Our Score: 4 out of 5 Stars

Very rarely do you have a religious piece of filmmaking that doesn’t question religion or support the existence of a greater entity. Martin Scorsese is no stranger to the topic; raising hell with “The Last Temptation of Christ,” but his latest film is a deep meditation and self-reflection on the topic. The myriad of ideas behind “Silence” are a little too insurmountable to summarize without glossing over one or two powerful and important themes. Nothing about this feels like your stereotypical Scorsese movie, which means it’s all substance and no style.

The movie follows Jesuit priests, Sebastia Rodrigues (Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Driver). They receive a distressing letter about their mentor, Father Cristovao Ferreira (Neeson). He’s apparently committed apostasy and disappeared in post-Feudal Japan. Despite warnings about the inherent dangers of being a Christian during the Kakure Kirishitan era, a time when Christians were deep in hiding in Japan and feared being publicly executed for their beliefs, the duo head off with nothing but their faith and an alcoholic guide looking to be forgiven for his past sins.

While the first act establishes 17th century Japan, the rest of the movie follows Sebastia. There’s nothing unique about him, I guess that’s just how the cards fell in terms of storytelling and/or history. Both Sebastia and Francisco are devout men, struggling to deal with the harsh reality of potentially being murdered for their religion in a foreign land, as they watch as others are brutally slain in their God’s name, and in inherently, their names as well.

“Silence” is a struggle of morality, faith, and life. There are moments where Sebastia’s beliefs are selfish, wholesome, absurd, and compassionate. The clash of religious ideals stems from the Japanese power structure believing in Buddhism and viewing Christianity, not only as a threat, but as a toxic influence that can’t sprout in their land, which they constantly refer to as a swamp. And more frankly, the Japanese government sees Christianity as a sly form of Western intrusion and corruption. The philosophical struggles between the two beliefs don’t develop until halfway through “Silence” and that’s when they things get more profound.

We get to see the rotten and enlightened side of religion’s impact. It’s difficult to pinpoint an encompassing message in “Silence” because it plays out like a scholarly debate on faith. The three biggies in “Silence” are its reflection about how important and damning symbolism can be, it’s criticism about how humans can fetishize their own beliefs, the idols they keep close, and the images that they deem holy, and it’s praise for how religion can teach us compassion and give us silent strength when dealing with the impossible.

On a more personal level, Sebastia’s voice-over narration and internal monologue provide insight into his selfishness of wanting to be martyred much like Christ. Outside of Sebastia’s unintentional egocentric spiritual journey, it’s a humanistic learning exercise as he internalizes concerns that his prayers are said and uttered to an empty void with no one on the other end. Anyone who’s ever prayed can surely relate to that plight.

“Silence” isn’t entertaining in the traditional sense. You may find yourself bored if you aren’t willing to put your beliefs and other beliefs up for scrutiny or if you view religion as an intangible topic. “Silence” is not just an intense examination of religion, but it’s a study of societal ethics and personal morality as it relates to history, culture and your community. It’s not until the end that Sebastia aligns his priorities with what’s best for his. “Silence” may very well be Scorsese’s deeply religious message for those wanting to live life and find peace.