Dec 29, 2020

THE POSSESSION OF HANNAH GRACE (2018)

 

The Possession of Hannah Grace is founded on an admittedly clever concept: what would happen to the body of a person who had died during an exorcism if the ritual hadn’t been completed? Well, naturally, it would become the morgue attendant’s problem, and there’s nothing creepier than the idea of being haunted by a possessed dead body in a basement morgue. Although I’ve always professed that I have no problem if plots are borrowed from previous movies so long as the one doing the borrowing does so with good intentions, it’s hard to ignore the fact that The Possession of Hannah Grace exists beneath the behemoth shadow of 2016’s The Autopsy of Jane Doe. Not only do both ride on the same plot — a cursed body causing supernatural havoc in an isolated setting — but The Autopsy of Jane Doe did it so well without relying on corny visual effects or borrowing creepy set pieces from other flicks. (The Possession of Hannah Grace borrows from everyone, naming The Exorcist, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and The Ring as just a few.) The Autopsy of Jane Doe was gory, of course, but it felt classically done, anyway – a horror movie made by adults for adults. The Possession of Hannah Grace, despite the few good intentions it has, was clearly made for teens, and while I won’t issue a blanket statement condemning all teen-targeted flicks, let’s just say that when it comes to the horror genre, the odds are hardly ever in their favor. The Possession of Hannah Grace only wiggles a single dead finger in rebellion to that assembly line, teen-horror mindset, twitching to life every so often in an otherwise ho-hum horror offering that’s DOA. 

To its credit, what with this being a Screen Gems release (purveyors of the Resident Evil and Underworld franchises), The Possession of Hannah Grace never gets too stupid in trying to scare its audience. Yes, there are lots of jump scares, and the reliance on CGI for even the most everyday things seems unnecessary, but there’s at least an intent for scares leaning on pure genre tradition. Also like The Autopsy of Jane Doe, The Possession of Hannah Grace blends supernatural shock with gory images, earning its R rating with repeated usage of the titular character’s twisted, wounded, burned corpse. (Several characters meet grisly ends as well.) In spite of its strong points, the movie falls victim to the usual kinds of lowest common denominators that plague mainstream horror releases, including a lead character (played by Shay Mitchell) whose magazine-cover beauty laughs in the face of her being a former police officer and a current morgue attendant. I’ve also never seen a more attractive and trendy looking city morgue, ever—the neo-gothic, art deco-inspired set looks more appropriate for Jack Napier’s penthouse in Tim Burton’s Batman than it does for an actual place where, at some point, a brain has definitely fallen onto the floor.

The Possession of Hannah Grace is a movie. That sounds like “no shit” level evaluation, but that is its biggest problem. It’s not good enough to warrant revisitation or critical praise, and not bad enough to leave behind a distinct impression. The movie, ultimately, is just there. (If you haven’t, see The Autopsy of Jane Doe instead.)

Dec 26, 2020

GWEN (2019)


With Gwen being marketed as a Shudder Original, and released to video from the genre-friendly RLJ Entertainment, it would be easy to assume it’s an out-and-out horror film. Its own synopsis includes the words “malevolent presence,” and the cover alone shows a gloomy and dim image of a young girl clutching a crucifix in front of a roaring fire. Having watched the film twice now, I’m hesitant to label it as a horror film, though the act of watching it definitely conjures horror (in a good way). Thanks to its period setting, its ease at earning and establishing dread, and its focus on the slowly dissolving family unit, Gwen comes off as a cinematic soulmate to 2015’s The Witch, another film I was hesitant to label as horror…and Gwen contains even less horror than that.

Despite that, Gwen is a solid, well-made, and eerily authentic feature from writer/director William McGregor. Every inch of its running time feels absolutely genuine. The actors, especially young Eleanor Worthington-Cox (The Enfield Haunting) as the title character, sell the desperation and despair of this poor family undergoing every possible hardship: the father is missing in action, the mother, Elen (Maxine Peake, Black Mirror), is suffering from a strange illness that causes her seizures, and the family is barely making enough money to scrape by. Bureaucrats in town continue to pressure Elen into selling off the only asset they have left — their house and farm — but she refuses, saying it’s all they have left — that it’s their home. Meanwhile, Gwen takes over her mother’s duties and tries to sell some of their farm’s produce in the town’s marketplace, but shoppers avoid her as if she has a catchable curse.

The moment Gwen begins, the viewer too easily slips into that world, and at no point does something “movie” happen to rip you out of the world that McGregor has created. Again, similar to The Witch, the dedication to making that world feel as genuine and realistic as possible is a total success, and it’s every bit as effective as A24’s eerie romp with Black Phillip. From the wardrobes to the accents and especially to the production design, it’s one of the most authentic period horror films you could ever see.

As for the horror aspect, where Gwen may lack in more typical horror scares (The Witch comes off damn near mainstream when comparing their horror content), it more than makes up in wallowing despair. Make no mistake: Gwen is certainly not a feel-good movie. If you have patience for slow-burn tales, you’ll enjoy watching it, but you won’t enjoy how it makes you feel. At times, it feels like a triathlon of how poorly things can go for a single family. Its ending, as well, comes off abrupt; when the screen cuts to black at the end, you’ll be waiting for it to fade into the next scene instead of directly into the closing credits.

The sound presentation might actually be the sleeper agent of the movie; the quiet ambience and low-key score by James Edward Barker infests your brain and lays most of the groundwork for the film’s focus on despair and futility. Gwen is one of those flicks where the sun never shines, where the world is draped in rainy gray. The picture only ever fills with life a single time–when Gwen is at the doctor’s office begging him for medicine to take home to her mother—it’s the only time the film feels hopeful, and that things might be okay for the family.

If you want a good-time, party-like horror movie, run as fast as you can from Gwen, but if you’re someone who prefers to wallow in the dark, or if you’re especially into period dread, Gwen and her family are waiting for you.

Dec 24, 2020

MERRY CHRISTMAS! 'JINGLE ALL THE WAY' FUCKING BLOWS AND YOU KNOW IT


Howard Langston (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is the worst father on Planet Earth solely because he has a full-time job. His wife and son make lemon faces and complain that he’s never around, even though I don’t see Mrs. Langston throwing out her jewelry or tailored wardrobe, nor do I see Boy Langston donating all his toys and sealing off the door to his bedroom that looks like one entire daycare center. Despite Howard being a profitable salesman whose job is to follow trends in the marketplace, he somehow remains entirely ignorant of that year’s “hot” Christmas toy: the Turbo Man action figure, which has since become impossible to find. “Whoever doesn’t get one is going to be a REAL loser!” his awful son states, therefore establishing a very wrong message to convey to America’s youth.
Awful Son: I want the Turbo Man action figure with the arms and legs that move and the boomerang shooter and his rock’n roller jet pack and the realistic voice activator that says five different phrases including, “It’s Turbo time!” Accessories sold separately. Batteries not included.
If you close one eye, squint, turn your head, and pound five shots, you might mistake something like the above as pretty funny.


It’s clear that Howard has one option: locate this pretty-hard-to-find toy for his son to make up for the fact that he hasn’t been around to actually raise him. Howard’s desperation to obtain this toy possesses him, mind and body, leading him on a path of destruction from which he’ll never recover. Oh, along the way he meets Sinbad, played by Sinbad in a mailman suit. They’ll start off as enemies, become friends, go back to enemies again, come to some kind of mutual understanding (I think), and then you’ll remember that one time you saw that really awful surveillance video footage of that person dying in the waiting room of a hospital where none of the personnel noticed for hours and you’ll realize that was still less soul-crushing than Jingle All the Way.

Despite being a total flop with critics, Jingle All the Way somehow managed to make $130 million at the box office by the end of its run; some figures even put that gross somewhere around $183 million. Thanks, civilization.

There is exactly one redeeming thing about Jingle All the Way and its name is Phil Hartman – not because he was given all the best lines, and not because he gives a stand-out performance, but because he isn’t forced to reduce himself to the agonizing depths of embarrassment that nearly everyone else involved in this fiasco ably stoops to achieve. All he does is sit in a car, drink hot chocolate, and look awesomely smug, and that’s why we’ll forever love Phil Hartman.

Not even Arnold Schwarzenegger, with whom I will always have a heterobsessionTM, can overcome the awful pedestrian humor in which people slip on bouncy balls and fall down, trip over remote control cars and fall down, or get caught in crowds of Christmas shoppers and fall down. Along the way a reindeer is punched, Arnold screams, “Put the cookie down,” a lesser Belushi makes an appearance, and we all die a little.

Jingle All the Way is a piece of shit. It’s a horrendous, abhorrent, shameless piece of human, corn-peppered shit. Regular pieces of shit look upon Jingle All the Way and think, “We’re not shitty enough.” Or maybe they think, “Boy, that’s TOO shitty.” I don’t know. I don’t know how shit thinks because I am not the feature film Jingle All the Way.

Jingle All the Way exists because we’re a horrible people. We’ve done wrong – perhaps since the beginning of time – and we’ll never vanquish the darkness in our souls nearly enough to will Jingle All the Way out of existence.

Know how I know that?

Because this:


Dec 23, 2020

MOVIE MOMENTS: BLOOD RAGE (1987)

"What's your favorite dinner scene in a movie?"

Blood Rage isn’t just a slasher favorite, but a yearly Thanksgiving tradition. Frankly, it’s as much a Thanksgiving movie as Die Hard is a Christmas movie, and I will fight to the death anyone who disagrees because that’s the kind of mood I’m in.

For those unaware, Blood Rage is about an amorous mother (Louise Lasser) who has a penchant for auditioning new fathers for her clingy twin sons, Todd and Terry, with the latter being a homicidal killer even at a very young age. In the film’s opening, which takes place at a drive-in theater, the two young boys fail at sleeping through their mother’s car sex and Terry loses it and carves up another theater-goer. However, the wrong son, Todd, is implicated and he spends a solid decade locked up in a mental hospital until he escapes and beelines right back to his family, who are sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner. After mom receives a call from the hospital warning her about Todd’s escape, they…decide to go ahead with hosting Thanksgiving anyway, but she asks Terry not to say anything, to which he agrees. Moments later, as they all sit back down at the table, Terry very casually says to his mother’s fiancé and their numerous other dinner guests, “Looks like you’re gonna get the chance to meet the rest of the family—my psychotic brother just escaped.”

Cut to this face:

If Blood Rage weren’t a slasher movie, it would be a sitcom. The laugh track was created for this kind of cutting comedic timing. Still, the revelation of a homicidal maniac coming to dinner is probably less awkward than enduring that uncle of yours who can’t wait to start talking politics.

[Reprinted/excerpted from Daily Grindhouse.]

Dec 19, 2020

SATANIC PANIC (2019)

Maybe I’m just a blowhard, but I’m a tough sell when it comes to horror-comedies. In my experience, most people don’t know how to straddle that line. Thirty-plus years later, I still point to The Return of The Living Dead as not just the ultimate horror-comedy, but the sterling example of how to marry the two genres. Call it comedy-horror or horror-comedy – regardless of the order, the horror genre is a heavy presence, and you can’t only dip your toe into the horror pool. A horror-comedy should still be mostly scary, and when lacking that, at least mostly gory. Even the genre term “horror-comedy” suggests a fifty-fifty experience, but ideally, if your horror-comedy isn’t mostly horror-based, you’re doing it wrong, and if I had my druthers, filmmakers would be forbidden from name-dropping the H word when pitching their movie. I hereby decree it.

Satanic Panic, the latest horror-comedy to come down the pike, isn’t scary. I’m not sure it’s trying to be, as its visuals lean mostly toward robed cult members committing body violence against unsuspecting victims. While it does shy away from anything overtly supernatural given its demonic design and influences (although there are some black magic flourishes), it’s still quite gory — the fun, rubber, practical kind of gory, instead of the very poor looking CGI that lots of low budget horror productions present and can almost never afford. Another thing to its credit is the very likeable lead, Sam (Hayley Griffith), an atypical final girl for this kind of genre. Griffith, as Sam, fully embraces the manic, neurotic, and nervous tone of her character as she begins facing off against, basically, Beverly Hills 90666. Through director Chelsea Stardust’s design, Sam is aware of the ridiculous situation in which she finds herself, and her bumbling and shy personality brings a lot of humor to the various and deadly situations that come her way. Her character successfully channels the audience watching this totally nuts fiasco, and she exudes much of the same disbelief and frustration regarding the conflict as much as the audience does when seeing it all unfold.

Even with all the carnage, violence, humor, and stunt casting, Satanic Panic actually gets the most mileage from the friendship between Sam and Judi (Ruby Modine), the target of her Satanist mother’s diabolical and demonic deeds. Sam is the meek and bumbling virgin, while Judi is…definitely not that; as their uneasy alliance builds towards a believable friendship, it adds a lot of unexpected emotional weight to the flick and helps to heighten the stakes once things really become dire for them both. (Also look for A.J. Bowen, who has become one of my favorite horror personalities. Like director and actor Larry Fessenden, filmmakers seem to cast him if their script has a character who has to die violently, and Bowen is always eager to fulfill that role.)

Though it’s not entirely successful, Satanic Panic is an amusing horror-comedy, mostly due to its cast, especially with Romijn in a role that’s very outside her normal oeuvre. The humor doesn’t always work, and can feel forced at times, but there’s enough genuine emotion to fall back on so it doesn’t leave Satanic Panic feeling like a wholly empty experience. Enough of the humor works, and the bloody effects will certainly satisfy the gore hounds. Take that, add in the emotional element (ignore the conveniently tidy ending), and there should be enough to satisfy the horror fan looking for something grisly and amusing. (And if that’s not enough, don’t forget the DTF Jerry O’Connell!)

Dec 17, 2020

THE STAND (1994)

The Stand was a big deal when it premiered on television twenty-five years ago. Stephen King was still knocking out books and short story collections, and adaptations of his work had reached a fevered pitch. Between the start of the 1990s through 1994’s The Stand, eleven feature films or miniseries bearing the author’s name were released, among them Rob Reiner’s Misery, considered among the best thanks to Kathy Bates’ Academy Award-winning performance as the deranged Annie Wilkes. Back before the days of the multi-volume feature film, King’s longer novels were depicted in the miniseries format, and had seen success with Salem’s Lot, IT, The Golden Years, and The Tommyknockers (the latter which is currently being developed as a feature by producer James Wan). The man who brought King’s epic tale of good versus evil was director Mick Garris, who had previously collaborated with King on Sleepwalkers, and who would go on to collaborate with him again on titles like The Shining (1997), Quicksilver Highway, Bag of Bones, Desperation, and Riding the Bullet.

The Stand, about a super germ plague that wipes out nearly all of mankind, rendering the survivors to either band together or divide on the sides of good and evil, respectively, has been hailed as King’s masterpiece and is overwhelmingly considered the fan favorite of the author’s long career. Though there is a certain grisliness to the themes and some of the imagery, it’s been among the most accessible of King’s works while still falling comfortably into the horror genre. Depressingly, it’s only become more relevant since its publication; as the planet begins to see real and catastrophic changes from global warming, the reemergence of diseases that were long thought to be in remission, and obviously the years-long pandemic wrought by COVID-19, let’s just say post-apocalyptic stories are back in a big way. (Not to mention The Walking Dead has been ripping off The Stand for years.)

With King handling scripting duties, The Stand is largely faithful to the source material thanks to its six-hour running time while also preserving his voice. One of the most consistent and unique aspects to King’s writing can be simplistically described as his cornballism. He has a penchant for folksy writing and bad Dad jokes, both deeply rooted in the same kind of pure childhood haze in which Ray Bradbury used to excel. Most directors who adapted his work would find ways to level this cornballism, keeping it down to subtle levels or excising it entirely. Garris, however, doesn’t just preserve that cornballism but elevates it, rendering many of their collaborations as the corniest of all the King adaptations. (Quicksilver Highway and Riding the Bullet, the latter based on a short story from King’s Everything’s Eventual collection, are among the corniest.) The Stand is no different, and the cornballism shines through, from the characterization to the actors chosen to play them to the limits of a network television budget. Along with the corn, certain elements of the story have not aged well, including singer Larry Underwood’s mother telling him he “sounds black” on his latest single, to which the white singer responds by putting on a “black” voice and bellowing, “that brown sound sure do get around!” (We likely won’t be seeing this exchange in the forthcoming adaptation by Josh Boone for CBS’s All Access streaming service, considering the actor playing the new Larry is, indeed, black...but they’d be wise to reconsider. If nothing else, it would serve as an amusing homage to The Shawshank Redemption, in which Morgan Freeman’s Red tells Andy Dufresne that people call him Red “maybe because [he’s] Irish,” a verbatim line from King’s short story where Red was presented as a white character.)

The cast of The Stand is massive for a TV budget, not just in quantity but quality, and it features several actors who had worked, or funnily enough, would work on another Stephen King project at some point in their careers. In no particular order, the ensemble boasts Gary Sinise (The Green Mile), Ed Harris (Creepshow, Needful Things), Kathy Bates (Misery, Dolores Claiborne), Rob Lowe (‘Salem’s Lot), and Miguel Ferrer (The Night Flier, The Shining), not to mention a host of Garris regulars who appear frequently in his other works, like Shawnee Smith (The Shining) and Matt Frewer (Quicksilver Highway). Along with bigwig horror cameos from directors John Landis (An American Werewolf In London), Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead), and Tom Holland (Stephen King's Thinner), Garris and King also take small roles, with King forced to deliver one of the film’s most emotional moments and which he blunders gloriously. Naturally, despite its ensemble nature, The Stand primarily belongs to Gary Sinise, as his Stu Redman represents that typically American aw-shucks good ol’ boy who only wants to do good for the people that depend on him. Among these people is Frannie Goldsmith, brought somewhat controversially to the screen by Molly Ringwald (there was fan blowback following this casting choice, and her performance didn’t do much to make those fans eat their words). Jamey Sheridan does fine work as the all-denim Randall Flagg, utilizing his unusual features and his wide, Joker-like smile to full advantage, though his performance is occasionally undone by the awful monster make-up he’s saddled with during certain scenes.

As is typical with most King works, The Stand’s conclusion is underwhelming, feeling rushed, unrealistic, and poorly executed. The “God’s hand” sequence is still laughed at to this day (deservingly), and is probably more infamous than the “wtf?” spider finale of the IT miniseries. After a five-and-a-half-hour buildup, the ending to this years-long conflict is handled too quickly and too cleanly, not giving any of its main characters time to resonate emotionally with the audience regarding their fates. Between its execution and the mere idea of God’s magical, glittery genie hand coming down from heaven to smack a nuclear bomb, it’s not the ending most people were hoping for, even if it’s loyal to the book.

The Stand is back, ladies and germs (get it?), and just in time. We’re not just in the midst of a King-aissance, thanks to the massively successful two-volume IT adaptation, but The Stand will be coming back to haunt a new generation in the form of Josh Boone’s upcoming take on the material, which premiers tonight on CBS All Access. Though 1994's version of The Stand may not be perfect, and it bungles the horror elements with some questionable effects and imagery, the drama of the story and the character interactions are enough to keep the viewer engaged.

Dec 16, 2020

BLOOD VESSEL (2020)

Is there any more consistently popular movie villain than the Nazi? Began with the horror and exploitation films of the 1970s with stuff like Ilsa: She Wolf of the S.S. and Shockwaves, Spielberg and co. picked up the ball and ran with it by choosing them as the primary villain in not one but two Indiana Jones movies in the ‘80s, and the trend continued to the present, mostly in the horror genre. (It’s hard to make a comedy about Nazis, unless you’re Mel Brooks or John Landis.) Nazi Germany’s atrocious part in history almost demands that their presence be treated with seriousness and sincerity, out of respect for the millions of lives lost, even if the movie that surrounds them is completely ridiculous. 

Occasionally, these Nazi-and-monster hybrids turn out to be pretty good, like 2018’s Overlord, 2013’s Frankenstein’s Army, and 2001’s obscure franchise starter The Outpost, but sometimes they’re pretty terrible, like whatever the Puppet Master series has been up to lately. In the middle of those extremes lie a pretty wide swath of very okay offerings, which can be found clogging up every streaming service there is (The Devil’s Rock, War of the Dead – I could go on and on). Existing among them is Justin Dix’s Blood Vessel.

A hodgepodge of Ghost Ship, (and Death Ship), 30 Days of Night, Aliens, and a tiny bit Evil Dead, Blood Vessel opens with a group of military personnel stranded in a lifeboat in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Among them are Sinclair (Nathan Phillips, Snakes on a Plane), an Australian soldier and former prisoner of war; Jane Prescott (Alyssa Sutherland, Vikings), a British medical officer; Alexander Teplov (Alex Cooke, Preacher), a Russian sniper; Jimmy Bigelow (Mark Diaco), your Ed Burns-ish yank soldier from Brooklyn or Queens or whatever sounds the most New York; Lydell Jackson (Christopher Kirby, Iron Sky – another Nazi horror thing), a Navy cook; Gerard Faraday (John Lloyd Fillingham), British intelligence; and Captain Malone (Robert Taylor, Kong: Skull Island). After spending an unknown amount of time stranded at sea, they hitch a ride on a passing Nazi warship and climb on deck to see that the ship appears abandoned. After doing a little investigating, they find a little Romanian girl named Mya (Ruby Isobell Hall), a creepy journal of incantations and drawings, an ancient coffin chained shut, and a whole lot of dead Nazis. If you’ve ever seen a horror movie in your life, you…probably know what happens next.

At no point does Blood Vessel feel like something unique or groundbreaking, even though it tries to freshen the ingredients by exploring underseen dynamics in World War II-era movies. Phillips, a native Australian, plays an Australian soldier, to which Bigelow’s smarmy New Yorker says, “I didn’t even know you people were fighting this war,” and in a modern cinematic rarity, Cooke’s Russian soldier is a good guy. Beyond that, Blood Vessel soon becomes your fairly standard vampire flick as each survivor falls victim to the bloodsucking scourge. (And may I quickly editorialize by saying Dix really missed the boat, forgive the pun, by failing to name his movie Naziferatu – no forgiveness required for that pun.) There’s nothing inherently wrong with Blood Vessel, and it’s perfectly entertaining in that superficial Hollywood-ish kind of way, but there’s something about it that prevents the audience from fully engaging in the conflict or sympathizing with the characters. 

Phillips’ Sinclair vies to be the typical hero type with Man With No Name/Snake Plissken vibes, and it mostly works, although the script occasionally does him a disservice and neutralizes some of his swagger. (On the tail end of his explaining that he was a P.O.W. for three years, he shows off a picture of his wife and talks about how she was told he was killed in action and she’d since remarried and had a baby…but how does he know all this if he was locked up for three years?) Each character is given a “thing” to offer them forward action, but most of their motivations feel more like convenient contrivances than anything that lends the movie context. Bigelow’s a dick so he does dick things, Prescott’s a medical officer so she keeps offering to take people to “sick bay,” and Faraday is British intelligence, which means he never saw real combat, which means he’s a worm and acts fragile and wormy the whole time. Dix works well with his obviously limited budget, putting most of his resources into the good-looking practical effects and wisely falling back on visual trickery only when it’s called for. There’s a sense that everyone involved is doing their best with the material while also not taking things too seriously, and that derives in Blood Vessel’s biggest success.

Blood Vessel doesn’t have the budget or scope of Overlord, the creepiness of The Outpost, or the ingenuity of Frankenstein’s Army, but it’s definitely worth seeing if you’re up for some comic book-styled B-movie horror. The acting ensemble is mostly capable (even though everyone botches the accents they’re going for), there’s a fine amount of blood and grue, and the Nazis-meet-vampires concept is certainly a twist on the formula, even if it unfolds the same way that other monster movies tend to do. You won’t come away saying Blood Vessel is a new favorite, but it definitely sucks in the good way. (Best pun you’ll read all day.)

Blood Vessel is now available on region free Blu-ray from Umbrella Entertainment, which you can purchase directly from their website.

Dec 9, 2020

BLOODY NOSE, EMPTY POCKETS (2020)

The concept of everyone existing in their own bubble is becoming more and more prominent as time goes on and the world/culture/politics finds increasing ways to divide us. Where one person hears verifiable facts, another hears flagrant falsehoods. Where one person sees hate, another sees freedom. Now more than ever, for reasons right or wrong, people are seeking communities where they can be themselves, express their own ideas without judgment, and have those ideas validated by those who think like them. Whether they’re safe spaces on campuses or hate threads on 8chan, people are seeking commonality, and if they look hard enough, they’ll find it.

The Roaring ‘20s, formerly a dive bar in Las Vegas, Nevada, was one of those places where people could meet, thrive in each other’s company, exchange ideas, trade regrets, and find a little hope while staring down the empty bottom of a bar glass. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, a documentary by filmmakers Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross (colloquially known as the Ross Brothers), takes a fly-on-the-wall approach to a bar’s last hurrah in operation as its patrons filter in for one final morning/day/night of drinks, laughs, chaos, tension, and tears. As we meet them, we sense the history they have with the bar and its other regulars. They’re not random folks who wander in for a spritz. They each have a name, a personality; for them, this is routine, a part of their lives, a haven for their worries and whiskey wisdom. And the things that come out of their mouths are unexpectedly poignant, hilarious, offensive, or downright befuddling. 

“It’s a place you can go [when] nobody else don’t want your ass.” 

There’s Michael, whom we meet trudging to the bar first thing in the morning, where he offers a hello to Marc the bartender before heading into the bathroom to shave and put himself together. A bit-part actor (whose only credit you’ve likely heard of is the Will Ferrell Comedy Get Hard), Michael is brutally honest in his hungover self-assessment: he’s an alcoholic and failure (which his fellow patrons don’t refute in an act of empty support), but that, to his credit, he didn’t become an alcoholic until he’d already termed himself a failure.  


There’s Bruce, a Vietnam War veteran, who has the saddest eyes in the room. He talks of losing his fellow soldiers in his platoon, the pain of that moment, and the pain that haunts him to that day. He breaks down in tears over how his country treated him after he came home. The bar is all he has, meaning its patrons, and with it closing down, he has no one left – no friends, no family. Bruce later leaves the bar toward the end of the night, unspotted, with no proper on-screen goodbye, spilling fresh tears. The only witness to his slow descent into the darkness of night down a lonely alley is the camera. 

I could keep you here all day with all the different “characters” of the Roaring ‘20s. There’s Ira, an aggressive, antagonistic, gravelly-voiced drunk who tells one of his fellow patrons to “get a pistol and shoot yourself in the forehead” – and this before his anonymous place of employment actually knows to call the bar when he fails to show up for his shift. There’s John, a young Australian, a bringer of donuts, and wielder of a mysterious brown bag that’s referenced a few times during the doc, to which John says “don’t worry about it,” but when its contents are finally revealed, it’s hilariously perfect. (John later dabs a full tab onto the tip of his tongue once the party really gets going, and then soon acknowledges, “That was too much acid. The number of acids needs to be less.”) There’s Pam, a 60-year-old bar maiden who is quick to flash her breasts multiple times in hopes that someone else will remark on their youthful appearance. Slinging them drinks are first- and second-shift bartenders, Marc, a bearded guitar-player, and Shay, a quick-witted mother of unscrupulous son Tra (pronounced Trey), who sits outside the bar with his two friends sharing joints, sneaking beers, and eavesdropping on all the chaos that leaks out from the back exit. 

“Hey Paul, could you bring me the toilet paper? 
I got a bad situation in here.”

From their outward appearance, these are the people you pass in the street whom you would so easily judge. We see Michaels and Bruces every day – people with missing teeth, scraggly hair, prematurely aged features, military service baseball caps – and we can tell they’ve lived long, tough lives…but we judge them for it. If it’s a Michael, we write in our heads all the poor choices he’s made; if it’s a Bruce, we see the military emblems and assume that he’s sad and broken from a war that stole his youth and his joy. We don’t know their story; we just know they’re taking too long in front of us in line at the store, or they’re trying to engage perfect strangers in conversation because of their loneliness and their desire to feel worth. What Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets reinforces is that, in this small bubble of the Roaring ‘20s, these are real people with real relationships. They’ve lost family, traveled the world, served their country, forged relationships. They fight, they flirt, they trade advice and regrets. For whatever reason, the outside world has rejected them. Their friends and families have left or died or never existed at all. For many of them, this is the only world that matters to them, and with the documentary filming the bar’s final day, we see this world coming to an end and how everyone reacts to it. 

Once a viewer catches a glimpse of all the different drunken characters slurring profanities, flashing aged extremities, and nearly getting into physical altercations, that viewer might blithely describe the Roaring ‘20s as the anti-Cheers, but that viewer would be wrong. It’s not the anti-Cheers. It’s just Cheers. Full-on Cheers. At the Roaring ‘20s, everyone knows your name, what you drink, what troubles you; they know your history, your sadness, your triumphs, your pain. They drink together, naturally, but they dance together, too; they hug and catch up. They watch Jeopardy, shout their answers to the TV, get nothing right, and good-naturedly curse “smarmy fuck” Alex Trebek for always knowing the answer. They watch talk shows about planning the ideal cruise ship vacation, perhaps knowing that they aren’t just the last people on earth to be caught dead on a cruise, but they probably couldn’t afford to go anyway. And it’s no coincidence that, later on in the night when the rambunctious crowd hits a fevered pitch, the camera happens to capture that same TV now showing a ‘50s dramatization of the sinking of the Titanic, the most famous shipwreck in history. Because whether they be majestic “unsinkable” ships, or periods of youthful happiness, or local dive bars, things come to an end. The most magnificent creations die slow deaths. Nothing is forever.

 “You just tried to fight a man with tattoos on his eyelids.”

It’s both ironic and appropriate that the very bar whose last day we’re witnessing happens to be called the Roaring ‘20s – perhaps the most infamous decade of American history, which began with promise following the advent of the automotive industry’s assembly line, kickstarting production of Henry Ford’s Model T and changing the world, along with the beginning of the suffrage movement that led to a woman’s right to the vote, but ending with the Great Depression of 1929, which saw the loss of millions of jobs and homes, and which saw, sadly, a massive increase in suicides. It was the end of an era, and the beginning of a long period of suffering and hopelessness where people felt aimless, useless, and without a place to go. 

Unlike that infamous abrupt ending of American history, 1929, the patrons of the Roaring ‘20s were at least allowed to pre-mourn an ending they knew was coming. Because of this, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets feels like the last episode of a TV show that was on for years, which saw cast members come and go during its many seasons, and for which every one of those characters came back for one last appearance, acknowledging the part they’ve played in its history and reminding audiences they will always be part of it – even if their memories of it aren’t always so rosy. At one point, Michael, the self-confessed alcoholic failure, drunkenly embraces a younger patron named Pete and begs him to choose a different path – one that doesn’t end in finding another bar once the Roaring ‘20s closes its doors. “You need to get out of this bar and don’t go into another one, and don’t go into another one after that,” he tells him. “You can still do something other than what I’ve done. There is nothing more boring than…a guy who used to do stuff who doesn’t do stuff no more because he’s in a bar.” 

When Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets comes to an end, the viewer will no doubt have a variety of different interpretations on how to feel. What did we just witness? Was it a collection of losers for us to gawk at, feel emboldened by the explicitness of their failures, all to feel better about our own lives? Was it a glimpse into the lives of a bunch of down-and-outers who have nothing left but a place in which to drown their woes? Was it the dissolving of the only family many of these patrons have ever known? Was it a tale of hope that there exists out in the world a community for every kind of person, scrubbing reality of any indication that we’re all actually alone? That, ultimately, will be up to every viewer to decide. What I do know, however, is that what I witnessed was beautiful, that you can find beauty in places you’d least expect to find it, that it does offer hope, that these men and women from every different possible walk of life – age, race, gender, sexual orientation, profession, political ideology – found each other, and in doing so, found comfort with each other. They found a community that lifted them up, or tore them down when they needed it, or offered a place to escape, to exorcise their demons, confess their sins, do penance, and amend their lives. They found a place to dance and sing and laugh and cry and to be utterly themselves without judgment. Can you honestly say you have that? Because I’m not sure I can.

“This was a real nice place you had here.”

Dec 4, 2020

RELIC (2020) AND THE RAVAGES OF REAL-LIFE HORROR

Toward the end of her life, my grandmother developed dementia following complications from her having suffered a mini stroke. She was someone I’d always known to be fierce, strong, and stubborn (I come from an Italian family, so no surprise there); she was also someone for whom the expression “suffered no fools” was coined. Her bullshit detector was well-oiled and frequently maintained, and though she treated her grandchildren with great care, if you were anyone else – look out. Because of this, she loomed large in my childhood mind and I always took for granted that she’d remain a towering, untoppable figure until her end…but after silently growing old in the home where she raised my father and uncle, a home which she refused to abandon in that stubborn elderly-person way, she was finally carried out against her will – literally, as she sat in an armchair, like she was an Egyptian queen – after suffering a fall caused by her stroke. In spite of her profane promises, she’d never see her home of sixty-plus years again. Like many other poor souls, she lived out her final days in an assisted living facility, where she wasted away into a crooked mass of bones and thinning white hair until she no longer resembled who she was.

The last two times I saw her offered two polar extremes on what dementia can do to a person; it was my first time witnessing how someone can be abandoned by their own retreating mind and realizing how little in control we are of our own ends.

Being that my father maintained routine visits, her memory and knowledge of him was always fresh and available. But me…she didn’t know. Not at first.

“You remember Joey?” he asked her, motioning to me after we entered her room during my first visit.

From her oversized bed where she looked like a shrunken doll, she nodded at me politely but indifferently and said, “Hi, Jerry.”

My father, by now well used to her fleeting mind, softly laughed and said, “Not Jerry, Mom. Joey…your grandson.”

She looked at me again, confused and wary, like a trick was being played on her…but then her recognition of me kicked in and every corner of her face changed. She softened. A smile of remembrance and love replaced her tight-lipped expression of forced civility. Within a few seconds, she looked and felt like an entirely different person – the person I’d known since I was old enough to know anyone at all.

“Hi, Joey,” she said in a quivering voice, her smile growing wider, and the miseries of her life and her new depressing environment were entirely gone. I sat down next to her bed, took her hand, and we talked. The specifics of what we talked about have faded since that day, but I seem to recall her saying she was looking forward to getting out of that place and going back home, just as soon as she was better.

As awful as her eventual ending was, I wish this had been our last time meeting.

I went to see her again later on, but this time by myself. My father had warned me ahead of time that, without him next to me, she might not know who I was. I understood this, but reasoned I had to try; she obviously didn’t have much time left, and if the choice was to either see her or not see her, it didn’t seem like much of a choice at all.

She wasn’t in her room this time; she was sitting alone in her wheelchair in the common area. I sat down next to her, but she didn’t acknowledge me. Finally, I said, “Hi, Grandmom.”

She looked at me with cool, dismissive eyes.

“…What?” she responded, like I was some random solicitor at her door pretending to know her while selling her something she couldn’t have needed less. It was evident she didn’t know who I was, and after looking at me for a second, she looked straight ahead again.

“It’s Joey,” I told her. “Your grandson.”

“My what?” she asked harshly. “What are you talking about? I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

I tried every association I could think of. My father – I was his son. My uncle – I was his nephew. I said their names over and over, and though she remembered them, her memory of me had been lost. It was a situation I didn’t know how to navigate, and even though I knew this was a possibility, I didn’t come prepared for the event it actually happened. The more I tried to engage her, the more I realized she suspected I was facility personnel, and once that idea settled into her mind, instead of my being some random stranger, her demeanor warmed a bit, so I remained with her and talked in general terms for a few more minutes. I asked if the staff were treating her nicely, and if she was comfortable, to which she offered noncommittal responses. I soon ran out of things to say, so we sat in silence for a bit before I stood up to leave. The last thing I ever said to her was, “I’ll come back to see you again real soon, okay?”

She shrugged at me, like this were no big thing, because why should she care if some anonymous staff member whom she didn’t know ever saw her again? “Okay…” she muttered, as if I were offering her irrelevant information she’d never need to know, as if she were telling me, “You can go now, whoever you are.”

I nearly ran out of the place – like I’d done something wrong and an orderly would be chasing me down any moment. I left feeling like an emotional catastrophe. I felt terrible for her because this was going to be how she ended. I felt irrationally embarrassed and hurt because she didn’t know who I was. And I felt afraid because I couldn’t help but wonder if this miserable fate would eventually befall my own parents, and all the people I ever loved, and then me. She passed away not much longer after that, and I realized with sadness and shame that my last ever interaction with her involved me pretending to be someone else just so she would talk to me.

John Carpenter once said that fear is the most universal emotion we have – that we’re born afraid, we die afraid, and in between, we’re all afraid of the same things. We can be afraid of the mythological: werewolves, vampires, and other monsters; the philosophical: ghosts and demons and the darkness inside us all; and the scientific: aliens, bad biology, species long thought extinct, and a planet rebelling against us for having treated it so poorly. As vicious or scary as any of those concepts and cryptids might be, we always have that safety net of fiction keeping us at arm’s length from terror’s implications. Sure, even the most fantastical titles can be used as parallels for real-world horror, which is what the genre does best – you can be just as afraid of George Romero’s zombies as an old spooky house as Jason Voorhees cutting your midsection off with a pole saw. Subterranean sand worms, Maryland witches, mirror-dwelling ghosts, telekinetic misfits – you have no choice but to pick your poison. But ultimately, every single horror movie ever made was about the same thing: our innate fear of death, in what form it will come, and through what avenue our lives led us to such an ending. Will our deaths be quick and peaceful, or drawn out and painful? Will the last thing we ever see be a familiar face by our bedside, or the back of the nurse as she updates our file on a hospital computer? Will we feel someone’s warm hand in ours, or nothing but cold air? Will we still know who we are when the time comes, or will our minds be trapped inside a darkened room that no longer feels familiar to us?

This year’s Relic, directed by Natalie Erika James, is perhaps one of the most terrifying films you could ever see – not because it’s the kind of horror experience that shares shocking, boundary-pushing imagery like a Hereditary or presents something more epically-scoped like a Night of the Living Dead – but because it’s one of those rare films where the real-life horror informs the cinematic one, as opposed to the opposite. Night of the Living Dead or Invasion of the Body Snatchers were blank slates – their roving mass threats could embody whatever real-life horror you wanted. Romero said Night of the Living Dead was about one culture devouring another and changing everything. The original Invasion of the Body Snatchers was an allegory for communism, while the 1978 remake was about the various revolutions American citizens were taking part in at that time: protesting the Vietnam War, decrying the corruption of the Nixon White House, cheering on sexual liberation – rejecting the machine that was turning everyone into soulless automatons who wouldn’t question authority. Relic isn’t front-facingly about something while secretly being about something else. It is very much about the horrors of slowly losing a loved one to dementia, and how that horror can escape the brain it’s already infected and leak out onto those forced to act as the caregiver. It can twist relationships, warp the very home in which you live, and reinvent a person you’ve known and loved for so long that they are no longer someone you recognize or understand, mutating them into something monstrous and villainous and a sobering portent of things possibly to come. And you can either fight, rebel, and flee from this monster, or embrace it, because you know, deep down, that person you’ve always known is still there, and you will never be able to change what is.

Kay (Emily Mortimer, Shutter Island) and her somewhat estranged daughter, Sammy (Bella Heathcote, Neon Demon) are heading to Kay’s mother’s isolated home in the middle of the Australian woods. Edna (Robyn Nevin, The Matrix sequels), prone to forgetfulness from an encroaching mental illness, has been missing for a few days, so Kay and Sammy examine the house, speak to authorities, and walk the woods, with no sign of her…that is until she comes home in the middle of the night while Kay and Sammy are asleep; her feet are dirty, she’s spacier than usual, and she’s not talking about where she’s been, but otherwise she seems physically fine. As time goes on, what Kay assumes to be a rapidly deteriorating mind turns out to be much more terrifying, and as a black mold begins to overtake Edna’s house, in the same way a black nothingness overtakes her mind, Kay is forced to navigate caring for a parent with dementia while also contending with the strange and potentially paranormal presence transforming the very home in which all three generations are currently living.

Considering its own trailer seems to have been heavily inspired by that of Hereditary, while also showing off familiar “Boo!” imagery from the likes of The Conjuring, you might be surprised by what Relic offers. That’s not to say Relic isn’t scary, or even a horror film – it’s both – but it moves at a purposely slow place, revealing pieces of the mystery a little at a time, or sometimes showing you potential pieces of the puzzle, leaving the viewer to put it all together. If you come looking for quick-paced, mainstream horror, Relic will fight you at every turn, but if you’re a patient viewer who enjoys a good mystery, Relic will not only prove a satisfying spin on the haunted house story, but will hit you hard in the feels with its intensely emotional finale – and it’s all due to the realistically flawed characters.

Early on, in spite of Kay’s worry, it’s easy for the viewer to see her as uncaring and unconcerned – not because of any action she fails to take, but because of her ambivalent reaction to her mother’s odd behavior. We, the audience, know from the start that something unnatural is unfolding, and Mortimer willingly and bravely takes on the role of a hands-off daughter, risking the audience’s aversion to her. In reality, Kay’s sins aren’t outlandish or unique to anyone who has ever been in that situation. She’s the first to admit she could’ve been around more, and maybe she should’ve been, but she spends the entire film contending with this and refusing the “easier” resolutions to Edna’s growing mental instability, eventually visiting a “five-star living” retirement home but later crying in the parking lot because she knows she doesn’t have the heart to follow through. During the first act, it’s revealed that Kay’s great grandfather had suffered a similar malady and died in total isolation on the family’s property, so when she says, “His mind wasn’t all there in the end…I don’t think he was cared for like he should’ve been,” that’s the crux of the film’s conflict and what has to be overcome.

The character of Sammy closely parallels the audience; because of her presumed estrangement with her mother, whom she calls by her first name, her sympathies lie with her grandmother by default, assuming her to be the victim of an impatient daughter unwilling to reconcile Edna’s wayward mind and her need for independence. In a way, Sammy represents idealistic ignorance – someone young and lacking real-world experience of how shitty life can be, someone who is burdened only with the knowledge of what’s going on, but without the full scope of its implications. During a sweet moment with her grandmother, Sammy offers to move into the house permanently to help her with every day tasks; within minutes, however, following a nasty confrontation directly caused by Edna’s illness, Sammy gets her first taste of how life would be as Edna’s caregiver. Suddenly, things don’t seem so easy.

Nevin brings Edna to life in equally horrifying and heartbreaking ways. There are very few moments where Edna is lucid and seemingly the way she used to be, though she never shares any of these moments with Kay. Their relationship is tense and worsens throughout the film, with Edna only softening during the scenes where she tries to convince Kay that someone or something is coming after her. Relic packs these emotional punches several times, offering the viewer a full view of how wrenching this kind of existence can be. Edna is consistently presented as both the villain and the victim, never comfortably resting on one side versus the other – and when dealing with something like a mental illness, this hews close to reality when relating it to an outsider’s perception. Edna’s increasingly dangerous behavior isn’t a result of anything more than bad biological luck, and the emotional toll it takes on those around her results in perhaps irrational but completely understandable fear, anger, and frustration. It’s easy for someone in Kay’s position to fear someone who was once a mother but now acts like a complete stranger, to grow angry at her for “allowing” this transformation to take place, and to grow frustrated at many, many things: her mother’s wandering mind, the brutal life cycle that enables this kind of misery, and herself for not being as present as she could’ve been. Kay is railing against life itself, and why it's filled with so much hardship and heartache, but she's also railing against her own fate...at least until she comes to accept it. We're all of us in for a very similar battle; we can refute, rebel, and reject, or we can accept it. Like the bumper sticker says, none of us get out of this life alive.

All these years later, I know who my grandmother was and I know who she wasn’t. She was the pint-sized woman who wore her golden hair in that tight and curly schoolmarm look, who took the bus everywhere she went, whose favorite store was Macy’s, who was that typical sitcom grandmother who was infamous for giving us kids the kinds of embarrassing clothes that would’ve gotten us beat up at recess had we actually worn them to school. I know that who she was at the end wasn’t a fair and accurate reflection of who she was in life. I understand that…but I haven’t made my peace with it, either. I can’t think of her without thinking of that, and that’s horrific and unkind, but necessary and perhaps unavoidable. Cinematic horror screams one thing in your ear while whispering something else behind your back, but real-life horror like Relic looks you right in the eye and shows you, directly, what fear looks like and warns you that you’ll never be free of it.

Dec 2, 2020

GOODNIGHT, HALLOWEEN

Longtime friend of The End of Summer, Luther Boghal-Jones, recently got in touch regarding his latest opus, the short film entitled Goodnight, Halloween. Even though we're in the thick of the lamer-holidays part of the year, T.E.O.S. luckily celebrates Halloween all year, and since I'm (still) going through Halloween withdrawal, seems like a good time for a festive, frightful flick.

From the press release:

Daily death figures…people locked down, hiding, communicating via webcams…a divided nation…a right wing agenda pulling the strings of government with populist politics…welcome to alternate Detroit in 1986…welcome to the world of Goodnight, Halloween.

Goodnight, Halloween is a short fantasy thriller from Worthing based award winning writer/ director Luther Bhogal-Jones – in this alternate world Halloween creatures have co-existed with mankind for all time…but now a forced government policy has removed their rights and allowed human citizens to exterminate them without consequence. The creatures have been forced into hiding and forged uneasy alliances between competing different species, all with their own agendas. A ray of hope emerges – evidence that could discredit K.R.O.N.A – the Khristian Right Of New Amerika – and having retrieved the evidence a group of creatures are scattered and forced to stay in hiding while the evidence is painstakingly uploaded to the Network…if they can stay alive long enough…which is where the film begins…

Ironically prescient for these times after being 14 years in the making, Goodnight, Halloween is a thrilling stylish throwback to the creature films of the VHS 80s era – something that could have come from studio stables of New World or Empire Pictures – while combining elements of Robocop’s mediabreak interludes and downbeat, cynical elements of John Carpenter’s work (especially with the Carpenter-esque score to the film – courtesy of Worthing composer Monzen Nakacho).

 Goodnight, Halloween

 

Extra stuff: 

Buy the soundtrack.

View the entire ZYX news sequence.

Nov 19, 2020

THE IRISHMAN (2019)

“I heard you paint houses.”

“Yes, I do. I also do my own carpentry.”

A friend of mine once said that Martin Scorsese makes the same movie over and over, and I had to do everything in my power to avoid picking up a nice-looking pen off a bar and kick-stabbing him in the throat until he was a bloody mess on the ground. (I’m kidding.) (Or am I?) In a really superficial way, one could believe this was a sound observation: it’s not just because the most well-known portion of Scorsese’s filmography has taken place in the world of the Italian mafia (though relegated to only four films, including The Irishman), with a single detour into the world of Irish crime in The Departed, but also because Scorsese’s own style and techniques carry over from film to film, giving them an almost brand-like feeling. There’s the first-person narration, the “crime is awesome” montages, the Rolling Stones soundtrack, the gorgeous spot-lighting, the frenzied smash-cut editing, and an ensemble of familiar faces like Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, the somewhat obscure Frank Vincent, and pretty much the entire supporting cast of The Sopranos. “I liked it the first time I saw it…when it was called Goodfellas,” a mid-90s SNL oddity known as David Spade once said about Casino. Gestating since at least 2008, The Irishman was predictably lobbed from the start with the same kind of shallow proclamations that Scorsese and De Niro were going to make yet another version of Goodfellas, even before a single frame had been shot. Once the film finally made its long-awaited debut on Netflix, twelve years after it was first announced, the camp was still split on what kind of film The Irishman was vying to be. Was it just another Goodfellas riff, or was it something decidedly different?

In case you haven’t deduced it for yourself during one of my typically elongated lead-ins, The Irishman is, indeed, something decidedly different. Is it about the mafia? Yes, it is. Does it involve a fair number of Goodfellas et al. cast members? Yes, it does. But where Goodfellas was a Scarface-ish allegory about opulence, power, and the eventual fall from grace, The Irishman is an Unforgiven-like examination of a misspent life immersed in dirty tasks for dirty people at the expense of one man’s family. That the film is headlined by an aging De Niro wasn’t just the result of the film being in pre-production for a very, very long time, but it’s also the point of The Irishman entirely. It’s about sin, regret, mortality, and legacy. And yes, De Niro, as one tends to do, has aged. For lack of a more respectful word, De Niro is now an old man. His elderliness has crept into his take on Frank Sheeran that both benefits and handicaps his performance, guiding him in his role of a soft-spoken, somewhat slowwitted boob eager to please his masters like a loyal dog, but which is also occasionally at odds with the visual technology being employed to shave decades off his real age. In a way, De Niro’s appearance and performance sum up the experience of The Irishman as a whole – still engaging, still artfully made by one of cinema’s remaining old-school masters, but maybe, perhaps, a couple decades too late.

Based on prosecutor Charles Brandt’s “non-fiction” book I Heard You Paint Houses (I say “non-fiction” because it was based entirely on Sheeran’s version of events, which many have claimed to be dubious), The Irishman is a sprawling epic where genuine history and possible artifice intermingle in ways that, regardless of the film’s ultimate dance with reality, is still a compelling story. The Irishman weaves a complex narrative of many characters, many conflicts, and many intersecting timelines. With a running time of three and a half hours, that’s not surprising. What is surprising is how quickly those three and a half hours go by. Surrounding the main cast of De Niro’s hired hitman Frank Sheeran, Joe Pesci’s mob boss Russell Bufalino, and Al Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa is an extensive ensemble cast who bring to life many of Philadelphia’s crime figures, including infamous mob boss Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel), Felix “Skinny Razor” DiTullio (Bobby Canavale, sporting a “rescinding” hairline), and an unexpectedly excellent Ray Romano as attorney Bill Bufalino. (In a weird bit of my family’s history, The Irishman makes brief mention of crime figure Frank Sindone, who helped plan the hit on Bruno and was later found dead in an alley with three bullets in his head. My Philadelphia-born father once unknowingly shared a car ride with Sindone and others from the neighborhood and later described him as “pretty fuckin’ intense.” My father also had a cousin [for whom things didn’t end well] who worked at the Latin Casino, which is featured during Sheeran’s “Appreciation Night” after he becomes President of the teamsters’ local union 326. I keep telling him he needs to write his own book about 1970s Philly because he’s seen some shit.)

In a way, even though any film should consider a comparison to Goodfellas extremely flattering, The Irishman works much better as its own beast. The gliding cameras, the eclectic oldies soundtrack, the voiceover: sure, those things are all present and accounted for – but The Irishman is measured, calm, patient, and mature. It’s a film that stands on its own, of course, but it’s also an acknowledgement of the long and very successful careers of those who made it. It’s Scorsese touching base with audiences and gently reminding them that his on-screen mafia tales are what’s attracted the most eyes, garnered his best critical notices, and punctured pop culture in ways that many of his other films didn't. And let’s face it: Scorsese wouldn’t have gone back to this same well so many times if he, himself, wasn’t so fascinated with a life of crime. What began on a small scale in something like 1973’s Mean Streets, made with a guerilla-style, low-budget scrappiness, has culminated forty-five years later with The Irishman, a two hundred-million-dollar epic that likely hit more eyeballs in its first day on Netflix than did his 2016 Jesuit priest drama Silence during its entire theatrical run. Indeed, Scorsese trots out many of his trademarks, though the occasionally abrupt editing by longtime collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker is much more restrained, in keeping with The Irishman’s slower pace. Though Scorsese still falls back on voice-over from a few characters, now they directly address the camera like they’re confessing their sins to us, the audience. As for his new bag of tricks? Yes, the controversial de-aging technology, which landed with audiences in extremely polarizing ways. “It looked great!” versus “It looked terrible!” flooded reviews and talk-backs. Snotty backseat drivers uploaded their own “deep fake” videos to Youtube to show how it could’ve been done cheaper and with better results. But here’s the thing: the de-aging technology itself actually looks fantastic, removing the deep creases and weathered appearances of our charming older men. The problem, however, is that those brand-new youthful faces are then pasted over their still-old dumpy bodies, and the additional decision to have De Niro wear blue contact lenses to “look Irish” (even though he played an Irishman in Goodfellas and wore no such thing) only does a disservice to the millions of dollars spent on those faces. Despite what the actors and choreographers tried, old men can only move like old men, and when it comes time for De Niro to knock down and kick-stomp the local grocery store owner, he kicks like an old man, and it’s hard not to notice.

Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran is an atypical performance for the De Niro we’ve come to anticipate from a Scorsese film, but perfectly appropriate and in line with not only the real Frank Sheeran, but the work De Niro has been doing as an actor since the early 2000s. Throughout his collaborations with Scorsese, or during the “nod” roles he’d play after the fact that painted him as a mob boss of sorts, De Niro was always in a position where he wielded power and influence (or in the case of Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables, baseball bats). Audiences have spent the last several decades affiliating themselves with De Niro the boss, from Goodfellas’ Jimmy Conway to Casino’s Sam Rothstein. This time, however, he’s the bag man, the hired gun, the administrative assistant who just so happens to steal and kill. Hell, he’s not even comfortable pulling the car over unless someone else says it's okay. “I was a working guy,” Sheeran says early on before he made his way into the crime world, but even after that, he was still a working guy – it’s just that the things he did are what changed. Sheeran, as presented, is a pathetic figure, only finding worth in the eyes of the crime figures who want him around while barely making time for his own family. One gets the impression that De Niro, for the first time in his life, is actually wanted around, and it renders him a purposely toothless presence, putting him into certain situations to perform acts he doesn’t have the guts to refuse. When Sheeran retreats to an empty bedroom to make a private phone call he’s been dreading, it’s the most pathetic De Niro has made one of his characters look in his fifty years of acting – even more than his famous scene in Taxi Driver where he’s being consistently rebuffed over the phone by Cybil Shephard’s Betsy, whom, after a disastrous date, wants nothing to do with him. “What kind of man makes a phone call like that?” Sheeran later muses during one of the film’s final scenes. De Niro, the boss who stomped on Billy Bats’ skull, who tore through the pimp underworld to save a young girl, who refused to be knocked down by Sugar Ray Robinson, has become a spineless, subservient slave, and he was the one who let it happen.

Sharing the screen with De Niro for the first time since 1995’s Casino is Joe Pesci, who makes a welcome return to Scorsese and co.’s world, his last high-profile project being his good friend De Niro’s 2006 directorial project, The Good Shepherd. Let me just say this: he was incredibly missed, and he offers up the film’s best performance. Gone are the days of the volatile Tommy DeVito and Nicky Santoro. Though his Russell Bufalino is “the boss,” he exacts that title almost manipulatively in soft-spoken but firm tones. He never, once, goes big, mirroring De Niro’s more neutered approach, and it’s quite honestly one of the best performances in his career. But don’t worry! Al Pacino is definitely ready to take on everyone’s yelling for them. Speaking of, though Pacino offers a fine performance as Jimmy Hoffa, he seems to be playing just another version of Pacino instead of the real man; if we must compare, it doesn’t come close to Jack Nicholson’s take from 1992’s Hoffa, directed by Danny Devito.

Though The Irishman is about ugly things, it doesn’t glamourize them in the same ways as Goodfellas and Casino. In some respects, The Irishman feels like the thematic third part of a trilogy that includes those two titles. It’s the end result of long lives spent creating and depicting stories of crime, but also of the real lives that inspired those stories, the toll taken from living on the wrong side of the law, and that no matter what one’s calling in life may be, eventually, everything comes to an end. And if, at the end of your life, you’re haggling with the salesman over the price of your own coffin – when you’re the one making the arrangements for your funeral because your family won’t do it – you know that’s a life that was lived selfishly, cruelly, and deeply alone.

As much as I loved to see the likes of De Niro, Pacino, Pesci, and Keitel sharing the screen together again, it pains me to say that The Irishman could’ve been a flawless endeavor if our primary trio of actors had been relegated to playing the last two time periods depicted in the film, while falling back on younger actors for the previous two. (Hey! Like they did in Goodfellas!) Having said that, The Irishman is still top-tier filmmaking for everyone involved and showcases a director who, despite his age, has no intent on slowing down. 


[Reprinted from Daily Grindhouse.]