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The Irishman and Marriage Story

Mid-November brings a brief theatrical release for two of the year’s most anticipated movies, both Netflix productions.  The Irishman begins streaming on November 27 and Marriage Story on December 6.
The Irishman (US 2019)
America’s greatest film critic Roger Ebert celebrated Martin Scorsese as America’s greatest living director, and before seeing this on the big screen in advance of its theatrical release I reread his reviews and reflections on Scorsese’s classic gangster films in the 2008 book Scorsese by Ebert—from Mean Streets (1973), GoodFellas (1990), Casino (1995), to The Departed (2006), for which he won an overdue best director Oscar.  No one handles such material better than Scorsese who grew up in New York’s “Little Italy” where the intersection of mob subculture and Catholic ritual was part of daily life.  This expansive elegiac latest work should earn more Oscar nominations.
            The real-life central character of the title is Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) who graduated from mafia hitman to bodyguard for the notorious union boss Jimmy Hoffa who ruled the International Brotherhood of Teamsters with an iron fist. Steve Zaillian’s screenplay is based on the book by Charles Brandt I Heard You Paint Houses—a “wiseguy” euphemism for having someone whacked.  Frank claims that as a World War II veteran of the Allies’ Italian campaign he picked up the lingo. Then working as a truck driver in Philadelphia he’s introduced to mob heavyweights Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel) and Russell Buffalino (Joe Pesci), who in turn becomes his connection to Hoffa—a full-throated performance by Al Pacino and his bag of tics.
            The movie begins with a tracking shot in a seniors residence where we meet Frank, now elderly and ailing in a wheelchair, as narrator recalling past exploits both personal (family life, mob associations, working as Hoffa’s henchman) and political (references to Hoffa’s hatred of the Kennedys, the Bay of Pigs, Watergate).  Given the low ebb of unionization in today’s America, the period details are striking in showing how feared was Hoffa’s power, albeit that of a ruthless megalomaniac linked to crime and corruption.  As confidant and enforcer Frank saw it all. Adding to his richly developed firsthand account is an evocative soundtrack with a score and music direction by Canadian Robbie Robertson. (Robertson was part of the iconic folk-rock group The Band, the last concert performance of which was famously filmed by Scorsese as The Last Waltz.)
Scorsese, who turns 77 on November 17, makes great use of a familiar ensemble of veteran actors in top form—notably De Niro (76), Pesci (76), Keitel (80) and Pacino (79).  And even though the digital “de-aging” process may not be perfect, it is effective in portraying them over a decades-spanning narrative.  These flashback sequences unfold at a very deliberate pace and encompass a large cast of vividly-drawn characters—with the dates and manner of their deaths sometimes recorded on screen.  Scorsese fills the three and a half hour runtime with richly developed storytelling in depth.  We get far more than just an amped-up highlight reel of greatest gangster hits.     Of course some are especially memorable, such as that of Frank on “Crazy Joe” Gallo. The culminating and most infamous is Frank’s role in the 1975 disappearance of Hoffa which became the subject of disputed conspiracy theories.   The way Frank tells his story, the women around him stay on the sidelines, minor accessories to the main action.  However we do at least get a sense of how Hoffa’s demise resulted in Frank’s profound effect estrangement from his daughter Peggy (played by Anna Paquin as a young woman).    
            In the end, we see Frank as the solitary survivor of a violent era. Is he repentant? Maybe not, but as his own end approaches he still leaves a door open to the God who forgives sinners. For all the murderous litany of misdeeds on Frank’s conscience, this masterwork of mafia life and times fades to black on a quiet and poignant note of grace.  A
Marriage Story (US 2019)
Another of the year’s best reviewed films, writer-director Noah Baumbach’s drama centres on the strains which emerge in a married couple, parents of a young son, when personal and career choices pull them in different directions.  Charlie (Adam Driver) is a successful New York playwright who has often cast his actress wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) in his productions.  Their relationship is already coming apart when Nicole relocates to Los Angeles to pursue an opportunity on a new television show.  Her insistence that their boy Henry (Azhy Roberstson) live with her, and Charlie’s that they are a “New York family”, lead to a protracted custody battle in which the long-distance separations are as much emotional as physical.  Nicole ups the stakes by bringing in an aggressive attorney (played by Laura Dern) to represent her side.  At first Charlie does not respond in kind. But when his resort to a cheaper low-key option—engaging an aging avuncular lawyer (Alan Alda)—proves ineffectual, he turns to his own high-priced hotshot legal counsel (Ray Liotta).  The respective lawyers both play to win resulting in courtroom confrontations and a rising temperature in the conflict between spouses.  Even as Charlie and Nicole can still recall what they appreciated about each other, the disintegration of their marriage exposes raw feelings.  Bringing all this baggage into an adversarial legal arena increases the costly consequences for both.  It seems at least possible that the couple’s misunderstandings could have been worked out at an earlier stage.  Once these are weaponized it’s too late.  The movie benefits from terrific performances in telling a taut cautionary tale of family breakdown and the scars it leaves behind.  A-


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