The Irishman 2019 ***

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There was once a discipline and economy to making a feature film; directors complained, but cinema-owners could only show a film so many times a day, and even video-tape cost money. The digital age allows Netflix to give directors carte blanche to make films of any length, and last year’s bloated awards magnet Roma is followed by 219 long minutes of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. Perhaps there’s a good film in there trying to get out, but handicapped by a rubber-faced CGI cast and over-familiar material, The Irishman is a limp, late return to happy hunting grounds for Scorsese.

Scorsese has a reputation as a master of cinema; Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas are all electrifying movies. What they have in common in style is the glamorisation of real-life criminal behaviour, and striking busts of violence. As a result, Scorsese has a large following with imitations as brazen as Todd Phillips’ Joker. But when the director tackles other subjects, in comedies like After Hours, or reverent biographies like Kundun, or literary adaptation like The Age of Innocence, or religious drama like Silence, and one thing’s for sure; the audience won’t show up. Bullets through brains is what Scorsese’s audience want, and the Irishman has plenty of that.

Don’t expect the old-school killings of The Godfather here; in The Irishman, executions happen at Grand Theft Auto speed, a flash of a weapon and a fountain of blood. Indeed, Robert DeNiro even looks like a video-game character, his gait awkward at every age he portrays as hit-man Frank Sheeran. We start in the 1950’s, and finish up four decades later, with the changes marked by the roll of history on Frank’s tv screen. Sheeran works his way up to a position serving, and then betraying, his boss, Teamster Jimmy Hoffa, played energetically under melting candle make-up by Al Pacino. Business associates come and go, with Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Jesse Plemons, Jack Huston and others milling around the edges, and even old pals Joe Pesci and Hervey Keitel get in on the act.

As always with Scorsese, the editing is crisp, the cars and clothes are ideal, and there’s some absorbing scenes; a discussion about fish takes on great meaning. Robbie Robertson contributes an ideal score to compel the viewer through any lapses of conversation, while the needle-drops are always on point. But the length is hellish and self-defeating; this is a tv show, not a movie, and Frank’s story is lazily told without discipline. As with Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese seems happy to find a unreliable story-teller and credulously set everything the say down as gospel truth, offering a narrow view, and a woman or morality-free text. Every time Frank mentions an explosion, the film stops to show it, an effect that comes close to self-parody, although the sight of rows of yellow cabs being dumped in the river is an arresting one. Steven Zallian’s dialogue similarly suffers from clichés; to paraphrase, it’s all ‘Jimmy the Snake taught me one thing; you never wanna cross Blind Willie McF*ck…’ Reflections on family and justice are marginalised by forensic attention to fashion and music.

Those who ignore all Scorsese’s other work will lap up the sudden shootings and the macho badinage of The Irishman, which is based on a book by Charles Brant. But the rubbery faces will put off casual viewers; The Irishman often looks like cut-scenes for a video-game, with mottled skin-tones and slick hairstyles that distract from what the characters say. There would be no place for an expensive dud like The Irishman at the cinemas; even on streaming, it’s likely to vanish quickly as a bizarre footnote to Scorsese’s career.

Avengers: Endgame 2019 ***

avengers-endgame-robert-downey-jr-chris-evans_0My regular reader will know I’m not a fan of comic books; I was when I was a kid, but grew out of them around the age of 11, and never imagined for a second that they’d come to dominate our screens decades later. Past-masters Scorsese, Friedkin and Coppola may not consider these films to be cinema, but they are box-office and they are loved. With this in mind, it’s with a mixture of interest and duty that, (as I began a six-hour shift of waiting for the boiler-repair man to come), I cracked open the blu-ray of what is now the biggest film ever, as provided by Disney’s tireless press department.

Not being invested enough to venture to the cinema to see this, or even take a look during a much ballyhooed home entertainment release, it’s perhaps no surprise that I wasn’t wowed by Avengers: Endgame. Firstly, it feels like half a movie because it is, planned at a brief and wayward time when splitting up movies into bits was considered the way forward. Engame’s appeal depends on memories of previous entry Avengers: Infinity War, memories which are less than vivid in my mind. A big-faced being called Thanos has snapped his fingers because he has a glove made up of magical jewels, and lots of people vanished, although who or what was missing is not described here. Those left behind, led by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) take revenge on Thanos, but then decide to go back in time to stop any of this malarkey from happening in the first place.

There’s a lot of pseudo-science in these films, and a lot of pop-culture references, and the concept of time travel attracts much discussion in both realms; ’It’s not like in Back to the Future’, someone says, but to the untrained eye, it’s exactly the same schtick, but with added quantum tunnels. If you’ve seen one interstellar vortex, you’ve seen them all, and Avengers: Endgame looks like pretty much every other movie in the genre in this respect. The climactic fight looks and feels like a day-glo wood-chopping competition, with no tension, no stakes, and endless noise, bluster and back-slapping.

On the plus side, there’s an extraordinary group of talents gathered here; whoever cast the 22 Marvel movies really did their job because pretty much every choice stuck. And there’s a welcome leavening of humour that makes all the series entries watchable, right from the get-go as Stark amusingly compares whatever that little Starfox thing is to a Build-A-Bear product. But such verbal sparring soon takes second place to the cod-Shakespearean pomp that afflicts the franchise; listening to the endless arguments of Thanos’s children, a blue-faced woman and two green-faced girls, would send anyone to sleep, if they’re not already choking on the unearned sentiment that’s ladled over proceedings.

Cinema is not a club, and Martin Scorsese is not the arbiter of taste who decides who gets in or not. Such open film-snobbery isn’t a welcome development, and Marvel movies presumably work well enough for children. But there’s a growing desire for those who consume such childish things to these same things to be taken seriously, the same people who acclaim Joker as a masterpiece without actually suggesting any reasons why anyone else should feel the same. Marvel movies belong in a long tradition, of lightweight, disposable blockbusters, and are no better or worse than their predecessors. They’re bright, they’re shiny, they’re not without wit, but there’s no reason for anyone older that 12 to fall in love with them. We live in an adult world, and if we see things only through the eyes of a child, we’re missing the light and darkness, the simplicity and the complexity, and the size and scope of the world around us.