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The IrishmanDirector: Martin ScorseseCast: Robert DeNiro, Pacino
While master actor Robert DeNiro and director Martin Scorsese have separately established voluminous and highly praised careers, their work together has stirred hurrahs that have made them Olympians of cinema. Whether it was “Taxi Driver or “Raging Bull,” their collaborations have raised the level of cinematic art and established a dynamic that has been truly special. Over 50 years, the Academy Award-winning filmmaker has also crafted iconic gangster stories from “Mean Streets” to “Goodfellas” and “Casino” — and now “The Irishman” joins that list.
Scorsese’s three 1/2 hour long epic received incredible reviews when it opened the New York Film Festival, and now has racked up 10 Oscar nominations including Best Picture. Already available on Netflix, "The Irishman" was compared to a Rembrandt painting by The New York Times and the movie received an unprecedented 100% “fresh” rating from Rotten Tomatoes.
But getting the film financed for either big or small screen took a lot of wrangling until it became Netflix’s; again a project presented a daunting challenge for Scorsese, DeNiro and its producers. Recalled the legendary 76-year-old, “There’s a really long history [to this] because Bob and I really wanted to work together since we did ‘Casino’ which was in 1995, and we would check with each other and what we were doing, what projects we were doing, things like that, never quite connecting.”
Added the Oscar-winning actor, “Yeah, we were talking about two years before, and I said now I should just read it for research on Frankie Machine. And then I read it.”
This 76-year-old was referring to another project that had been under consideration, "The Winter of Frankie Machine". Though it was pitched for possible production, it fell to this project to get made, based on a different book. How did it get started? Producer Jane Rosenthal had explained that, in 2007, she and partner DeNiro were trying to make another movie, “The Winter of Frankie Machine.” Said Rosenthal, “On a call with Paramount Pictures head Brad Bray, Bob brought up this other book that he had read and said, ‘Maybe we could do this together or maybe not.’ The book was ‘I Hear You Paint Houses,’ and we decided we should do that.”
With that, Scorsese responded, “When Bob presented the book to me, it seemed that he was very strongly attached to the character. We didn’t have to say much. After the phone call with Brad, I got Steve [Zaillian] to write the script. That was about 10 years ago.”
Based on Charles Brandt’s 2004’s book, “The Irishman” stars DeNiro [who is part Irish] as Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran, with Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci as Jimmy Hoffa, and Russell Bufalino, respectively. In the movie, Sheeran recounts both his job as a union official and as a hitman for the Bufalino crime family. Born in 1920 to Philadelphia-base house painter Thomas Francis Sheeran Jr., and Mary Agnes Hanson, the young Sheeran grew up in Darby, Pennsylvania — a small working-class Irish neighborhood on the outskirts of Philadelphia. As a World War II veteran, he learned his killing skills fighting in important battles in Italy.
As the killer recalls his Mafia life, the film flashes back to the hits that defined his career, and the part he claims to have played in the disappearance of life-long friend Hoffa, the former president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, who mysteriously vanished in late July, 1975, at age 62. A classic mobbed-up union figure fighting for his constituency — while taking wads of cash under the table — Hoffa provided a challenge for any actor.
For Scorsese, this production offered an opportunity for him to finally work with Pacino, who plays the legendary Teamster leader. As the award-winning actor remembered, “Oh yeah, it was because in today’s world, you have a lot of access to those kinds of characters because of people who know them, or knew them, there’s books about them. We had access to all that. When I played Serpico, the thought of him on a video somewhere was, I mean it was not even a thought, but I had him. That’s always an advantage. But Jimmy knew so much about it, I grew up at the time of it.”
The movie also re-teamed the director with DeNiro and Pesce, who last worked together maybe 25 years ago in Casino. As DeNiro noted, “Opportunities passed and then Joe and I would talk about the movie too. We went through our own process of talking about it as far as all that goes. But I’m just happy we all finally got to do it because it did take a long time. The way that Martin was able to do it and the way that we wanted to do it, we were lucky to have the people that put up the money.”
Scorsese agreed. “Yes, that was the key! We couldn’t get a backer, there was no way, for years. But, ultimately it was [Netflix’s head] Ted Serrandos. He actually backed the film and financed it.”
Still, there was another huge challenge facing the director. The story spans three decades and more. And that offered a unique opportunity. “[Visual effects supervisor] Pablo Helmanand Maya had come up with a solution for the de-aging process that wouldn’t interfere with Bob and Joe — like talking to each other with helmets on or tennis balls on their faces. We did tests a few years ago, but it was a costly experiment. Yet Ted and everyone at Netflix said, ‘Go with it!’ Creatively, they turned to us and there was no interference of any kind. There were some notes from time to time and we addressed them or not.
“The point is that it was necessarily an interesting hybrid in a way, because it hung in the balance [for] what a film is. All of this is an extraordinary time of change, but when it comes down to it, ultimately, we all felt the picture had to be made for ourselves really. We had to check in with each other; you know, as you grow older, people change differently at times and you grow separate away from each other. This was not the case; we just kept coming back and still have a telepathic way of working together, particularly with certain characters. And, It’s my first time working with Al, finally!”
To which, Al chimed in, “I read the script, I promise!”
Scorsese replied to that: “I know, because the marks you hit and the lines were very specific. Certain people think he would have a lack of appreciation… You know it’s there, it’s in the script, but it is the interpretation.
The 79-year-old master thespian added, “Somebody said to me, about the age thing, and they showed me this thing of Bob doing Goodfellas, and I thought, ‘why is he doing this again?’”
The seasoned moviemaker explained, “I always told this story about the first day shooting with you, getting out of the chair. It was you and me, and you were complaining about “those Kennedys they go to war with these people” — remember on the TV? That was the first time I have ever worked with you too and I said, ‘That’s great!’ It was really good what he did and I said one more take and he gets up out of the chair, yells at the TV and leaves again, at which point I say, ‘Good, maybe we’ll do one more and I think we can move on.’
“There were two cameras going, and this was [with] the three lenses on each camera. I think it was [cinematographer] Rodrigo Pietro, Pablo and I think Gary. It isn’t just about lenses and computer imagery. It’s about posture, it’s about movement, it’s about everything, so there were people on each element dealing with the actors on this. And Gary came over and said, ‘I have to tell you something.’ And I’m like ‘What?’ and he says, ‘He’s supposed to be 49.’ I said, ‘Why are you telling me?’ he says, ‘No, you have to tell him!’ I walk over and say, ‘Al, everything’s fine, but one of the things is that when you get out of the chair, you’re supposed to be 49.’ Al’s like, ‘Oh God, Okay!’ We were sculpting this whole thing, it was like working models in a way, plus the truth about how they’re interpreting. It’s an extraordinary experience!”
And with that in mind, Pacino acknowledged, “Young again!”
Blu-rays of the Week
(Film Movement Classics)
Bill Forsyth’s breakthrough feature was this extremely charming 1981 romantic comedy about a teen who falls for a sporty tomboy who makes the high school’s soccer team. Although Forsyth would go on to make better, more memorable films—like his masterpieces Local Hero and Housekeeping—there’s something disarmingly unpretentious to this perceptive comic study.
Winning performances by John Gordon Sinclair (Gregory), Dee Hepburn (tomboy) and Claire Grogan (another girl) help keep this as fresh and funny as it was nearly 40 years ago. The new hi-def transfer looks luminous; extras include a new Forsyth commentary, new interviews with Forsyth and Grogan, and a vintage interview with Forsyth.
Britt-Marie Was Here
Swedish actress Pernilla August—an accomplished veteran of films by Ingmar Bergman and her ex-husband Bille August—plays a forgotten 63-year-old wife who discovers her husband is having an affair, so she moves away and improbably becomes the soccer coach to a bunch of unruly teens.
This is crowd-pleasing, safe filmmaking whose sentimentality and cutesiness is obviously the draw here, along with August, always an appealing presence, as our heroine. There’s a fine hi-def transfer.
Sidney Lumet’s pulse-pounding 1964 drama about a Cold War nuclear confrontation between the U.S. and Soviet Union had the misfortune of being made at the same time as Stanley Kubrick’s scaldingly comic take on the subject, Dr. Strangelove (Kubrick even sued the production).
Fifty-six years later, Lumet’s tense thriller—with a fine cast led by Henry Fonda as the president, Larry Hagman, Fritz Weaver, Walter Matthau and Dan O’Herlihy—can be appreciated on its own. Criterion’s hi-def transfer is exceptionally vivid; extras include Lumet’s 2000 commentary; an interview with film critic J. Hoberman; and Fail-Safe Revisited, a 2000 documentary short including interviews with Lumet, O’Herlihy and screenwriter Walter Bernstein.
George Benjamin—Written on Skin/Lessons in Love and Violence
With 2013’s Written on Skin, British composer George Benjamin became a rock star in the opera world: his spiky music and the intense drama of Martin Crimp’s libretto about a fateful adulterous affair combine with committed performers and interpreters to create an overwhelming dramatic and musical sensation.
His 2018 followup, Lessons in Love and Violence—a static drama about an enraged and enraging monarch and the bitter rivalries among his family and subjects—finds Benjamin and Crimp spinning their wheels, even with returning Skin collaborators: director Katie Mitchell and singers Barbara Hannigan and Stephane Dagout. Hi-def images and audio are first-rate; extras are short interviews with Benjamin, Crimp and Mitchell.
Leonard Bernstein’s Young People's Concerts with the New York Philharmonic, Vol. 2
As music director of the New York Philharmonic, conductor Leonard Bernstein—a brilliant musical polymath and teacher with the rare ability to talk about music to any audience, young or old—hosted dozens of concerts in which the orchestral players demonstrated works both familiar and obscure while he chattily discussed the pieces’ relevance and originality.
Like volume 1, this four-disc set collects 14 episodes from the series that CBS aired (in prime time!) from 1958 and 1972—along with three episodes featuring young performers—as music by Copland (on his 60th birthday) and Shostakovich is played and analyzed alongside a couple of Beatles tunes. The half-century-old televised episodes look fine, if unspectacular, on Blu.
DVD of the Week
Russian cellist Gregor Piatigorsky (1906-76) led a fascinating personal and artistic life, and Murray Grigor and Hamid Shams’s affectionate documentary rises to the occasion by being thoughtful about his legacy as it drifts heavily into “music geek” mode.
Interviews with many of Piatigorsky’s students and fervent admirers—including fellow cellists Yo-Yo Ma, Mischa Maisky and Stephen Isserlis—further illuminate a magnanimous portrait of a man, musician and mentor.
CD of the Week
Beethoven’s lone opera, Fidelio, originated as Leonore, titled after the eponymous heroine whose beloved husband, Florestan, has been jailed for crimes against the state.
Although both versions have their dramatic clunkiness—redeemed throughout by Beethoven’s soaring music, especially the great overtures (“Leonore No. 2” is included here)—there have been attempts in recent decades to resuscitate Leonore. In this estimable new recording, housed in an impressive hardcover book, René Jacobs adeptly conducts the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra as well as several well-cast soloists, led by Marlis Petersen’s transfixing Leonore.
Jagged Little Pill
Lyrics by Alanis Morissette; music by Alanis Morissette & Glen Ballard; book by Diablo Cody
Directed by Diane Paulus
Opened December 5, 2019
The Healy family (Celia Gooding, Derek Klena, Elizabeth Stanley and Sean Allan Krill) in Jagged Little Pill (photo: Matthew Murphy)
With her 1995 album Jagged Little Pill, 21-year-old Canadian singer Alanis Morissette was catapulted into the stratosphere. However cringeworthy many of her lyrics were, the songs were raw and angry, instantly memorable and singular, so it’s no surprise that she never approached that level of creativity or success again.
But making a dozen impassioned tunes of post-teen angst the basis of a musical would appear to be foolhardy—and after seeing Jagged Little Pill on Broadway, I realized that my fears were confirmed. It might not have been dramatic enough to put onstage a young woman trying to make sense of relationships; but that might have been more honest than what we get: Diablo Cody’s book concerns a superficially “perfect” middle-class Connecticut family surrounded by seemingly every conceivable social issue in the news recently.
We’re introduced to the Healy (for “healing”—get it?) family: there’s smiling mom Mary Jane, who’s hooked on painkillers and nearly dies from an OD. There’s Frankie, the smart high school daughter who’s adopted, bisexual and black, the progressive trifecta. There’s older brother Nick, the favorite, who witnesses a date rape at a drunken party and doesn’t do the right thing. And there’s dad Steve, who watches porn at work and is generally oblivious to what’s really going on under his roof.
The problem isn’t that Jagged Little Pill tackles heavy-duty issues, it’s that it does so without delving even semi-deeply into them; after bringing up one, it moves quickly onto the next. This creates a jagged little tonal problem for the show, most obviously when Morissette’s still-powerful smash hit “You Oughta Know”—turned into a brilliant showstopper by Lauren Patten as Jo, Frankie’s former girlfriend who discovered that Frankie slept with a male classmate—brings down the house, immediately followed by a harrowing account of the school-party date rape, a moment as awkward as Morissette’s teen-diary lyrics. Putting a teen’s anger over her girlfriend cheating on the same level as date rape is false equivalence of the highest order.
The bright spot of Cody’s book is “Ironic,” with its infamously ill-chosen lyrics about events that actually aren’t ironic. One day in class, Frankie reads from her own short story, which comprises the song’s lyrics. As she sings, other students—and the teacher—pipe in exasperatedly about the unironic nature of her passages. But that amusing self-reference only undermines the rest of the musical’s surface-level exploration.
Jagged Little Pill has been brashly directed by Diane Paulus, whose visual tour de force is a clever rewinding of the action during the song “Smiling,” one of Morissette and Glen Ballard’s two new songs, showing Mary Jane’s desperately buying her pills from a dealer after she can’t get a new prescription. Paulus has been immeasurably helped by marvelously suggestive sets by Riccardo Hernandez and insinuatingly evocative lighting by Justin Townsend.
Songs old and new are well-handled by a cast that’s otherwise unable to create real characters out of ciphers. Along with Patten’s formidable Jo, the show’s standouts are Celia Rose Gooding’s Frankie and Elizabeth Stanley’s Mary Jane, all of whom at least nod toward complexity in an otherwise mainly cartoonish 2-1/2 hours.
Broadhurst Theater, 235 West 44th Street, New York, NY
Le Petit Soldat
Jean-Luc Godard made his second film immediately after his breakthrough debut, 1959’s Breathless, but the incendiary material—the director scaldingly indicts both the French and the Algerians’ use of torture in the then-current Algerian War—caused its ban in France and it was not shown elsewhere until 1963.
Its elliptical narrative is typically Godardian, but Godard’s political urgency, the sharp B&W Raoul Coutard photography, and the first appearance of his then-muse, Anna Karina, make Soldat pointed and still relevant. Criterion has provided its usual superb hi-def transfer; the interesting if skimpy extras comprise two Godard interviews—a 1961 audio one and a 1965 video one—and a 1963 interview with actor Michel Subor.
London Kills—Series 2
Doc Martin—Series 9
In the second series of London Kills, the team investigates the killing of an elderly man whose nine-year-old grandson called in the killing. Soon child abuse and other cover-ups dominate in this taut, tantalizing and extremely well-plotted follow-up to last season’s auspicious debut.
By now, Doc Martin is as comfortable as an old shoe, but series 9 throws a curve ball: the good doc is being hounded by officials unpersuaded by his unorthodox methods, even though it’s been good enough for the locals for years. Both series feature tremendous acting to go along with the fine writing. There are first-rate hi-def transfers; extras include interviews and behind-the-scenes featurettes.
Even by the standards of recent Nicolas Cage fare, this is a doozy: he plays a big-game hunter whose treasured catch, a white panther, is cargo on a ship heading back from Africa to America. Also on board is a dangerous prisoner who, of course, gets loose and causes trouble, especially when he frees the panther and other dangerous animals of Cage’s including—of course—deadly snakes.
The claustrophobic ship setting isn’t really given a thorough workout by director Nick Powell, but it remains mindless (and relatively brief) entertainment. There’s an excellent hi-def transfer; lone extra is a making-of featurette.
In Safe Hands
Jeanne Henry has made an emotionally involving look at adoption, and how each person involved—would-be parents, temporary guardians and, of course, the agency workers themselves—rides a personally wrenching roller coaster as the bureaucracy’s slow machinery grinds its way forward.
Marrying insightful writing and precise directing with exemplary performances—particularly from that sorely underused actress Elodie Bouchez as the expectant mom and Sandrine Kilberlin as the lead agency rep—Henry’s drama is a memorable soap opera.
Reynaldo Hahn—Complete Songs
The great composers of French song include Fauré, Chausson, Poulenc, Duparc—and Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947), whose own mastery of the French art song, the mélodie, was wide-ranging and impressive through several decades and dozens of songs.
This four-disc set collects everything that Hahn composed, from the early “Rêverie” and “Si mes vers avaient des ailes”—written at age 14 to words by Victor Hugo—to the posthumously published Neuf Mélodies retrouvées. All 107 songs—for which the lavish and illustrated booklet includes the French texts and English translations—are expressively sung by Greek baritone Tassis Christoyannis, who is beautifully accompanied by American pianist Jeff Cohen.
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