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.

Dolemite Is My Name 2019 ****

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Who was Rudy Ray Moore and why should be care about him in 2019? This comeback vehicle for Eddie Murphy is a superficial but undeniably entertaining Netflix-lite account of the 1970’s comic who rose from club gigs, concert records and eventually Blaxploitation cinema to become a significant cultural influence. For Murphy, who has vanished from the big-time scene for some time, playing Moore gives him a chance to get back a mojo that’s been posted missing for decades, and Dolemite Is My Name certainly provides that showcase.

Moore is introduces as an unsuccessful hustler, tying to get a foothold with a uninterested record store DJ Raj (Snoop Dogg); in a script written by the team who brought us Ed Wood (Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski), the trajectory of Moore’s career is obvious from the moment he listens to a passing vagrant telling jokes, and realises that there’s nothing in his day’s media that reflects that culture. Club MC-ing comes easily to him in character as Dolemite, and making records in people’s houses propels him to a cult success. But a viewing of the comparably austere worldview contained in Billy Wilder’s 1974 film The Front Page inspires Moore to go a step further: enlisting the help of a playwright (Keegan-Michael Key) to create a movie, despite knowing almost nothing about what that might entail. The presence of funny performers like Titus Burgess and Craig Robinson has already provided a rich garnish for Murphy’s imitation of Moore, but a higher comic gear is achieved when Wesley Snipes enters as D’Urville Martin, who acts and directs alongside the inexperienced Moore, and who suffers long and hard for his art; for Snipes and Murphy, Dolemite gives them a chance to shine, and they grab it with both hands.

What’s less impressive here is that Dolemite Is My Name, directed by Craig Brewer, has little to actually say about Moore, comedy, or cinema aside from breathlessly relating a legend of financial success; Moore isn’t allowed a private life, or even a sex life, and most of his problems only occur to be resolved in the following scene. It’s the kind of approach that featured in The Wolf of Wall Street; print the legend and nothing else. The only characters not immediately in thrall to Moore are those who haven’t worked out how to make money from him; for a 2019 audience, without any real context beyond a few seconds of Wilder’s film, Moore’s routines, bravado and sexism don’t seem particularly amusing in themselves, however painstakingly brought to life.

Dolemite is My Name is the kind of rags to riches story that’s easy to relate to, and Moore’s approach to film-making makes for an entertaining film. But Brewer doesn’t actually make many points other than you can make a lot of money making blue jokes, denigrating women and acting out stereotypes. It’s easy to see why Murphy related to the idea of making this film, and there is likely to be a substantial audience who share his interest, even if the result seems to airbrush its subject to gain mainstream acceptance.

https://www.netflix.com/watch/80182014?source=35

The Laundromat 2019 ***

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Stephen Soderbergh has promised to retire so many times now that it’s tempting to organise a Kickstarter whip-round to get him a carriage clock and hope the door doesn’t hit him on the backside on the way out; at least we’d be spared sitting through such yawners as Side-Effects, The Good German, The Girlfriend Experience or Haywire. His latest, The Laundromat, takes the Panama Papers as a subject in the style of The Big Short, but with none of the energy or focus. There’s a certain interest in the cast assembled, and the subject is a timely one given that legislation clearly needs to change, but Netflix is hardly a non-profit, charitable institution. And given that Netflix are currently being sued or under investigation for tax evasion in several countries, the ani-corruption lecture The Laundromat ends on feels more that a little misplaced, focusing attention to the company’s own business practices.

The draw name here is Meryl Streep, and the powerful opening scene for her character grabs the attention as she loses her husband, in a sequence mirroring a real-life tragedy where a scenic tour boat was capsized. Her character, Ellen Martin, finds herself given the run-around from various insurance companies, and the scene is set for a thorough investigation of shell companies, wealth management and various other aspects of the 21st century financial ball-game. Except Ellen’s story is soon swamped by a number of other all-star elements, none of them very compelling and a few, including Steep in another role, badly misjudged.

Worse still is a framing device featuring two slices of processed ham from Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas as Jurgen Mossack and Ramon Fonseca, who are portrayed as running a dubious Panama law firm and narrate the stories straight to camera. The green-screen work here is poor from the opening cave-man sequence onwards, and the device itself is questionable; why should the one-per cent get to tell the story? And why should eight dollar Netflix subscribers, presumably entertainment seekers, want to listen to a lecture on money delivered by well-heeled actors like Sharon Stone, who reportedly banked $10 million in a pay-or-play deal for Basic Instinct 2? Our fictional Mossack and Fonseca attempt to make a gag of this by pointing out a difference between tax evasion and tax avoidance, but it just feels like Soderbergh is giving himself and his pals a free pass on moral responsibility, shrugging and saying that someone, anyone else is to blame.

The Big Short was no masterpiece, but it at least managed to carry off an irreverent style and give its stars something substantial to do to earn their corn; the famous-face cameos featured here suggest nothing more than a charity telethon, with celebs phoning it in for the cash. It’s no surprise that, to quote an early inter-title, ‘the meek get screwed’ when the exposes are as toothlessly presented as this. As awards fodder, or even as an educational tool, The Laundromat barely gets started, and drops into the same dusty bin as War Machine and other Netflix misfires. That 500 million dollar deal for a 25 year old Seinfeld sitcom can’t come soon enough for a streaming service seemingly out of ideas and out of touch with its worldwide audience.

https://www.netflix.com/watch/80994011?source=35

 

Between Two Ferns: The Movie 2019 ****

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Is it too late for Netflix to bring the funny? With Amazon investing billions in established IP like Lord of the Rings, it seems perverse that Netflix’s latest big investment is decades-old episodes of Seinfield to complement decades-old episodes of Friends. Not that these shows aren’t great, but they’re placeholders for new comedy that’s yet to appear. Tapping into existing comedy like Joel McHale didn’t work, even though his show had some great stuff in it, so this harnessing of popular content from Funny Or Die seems like a step towards  giving Netflix an identity based on putting smiles on faces.

Zach Galifianakis has been ploughing an amusing furrow with his talk-show parody Between Two Ferns, originally Betwixt Two Ferns as he mentions in Scott Aukerman’s expanded reboot. There’s elements of Ali G as Galifianakis says and does exactly what an interviewer should not, drawing attention to himself, mis-representing his guests, and just being plain rude; there’s plenty of big names willing to show themselves as good sports. This time around, it’s pretty clear that there was an Avengers movie sending a roster of names to the set; Benedict Cumberbatch, Tessa Thompson and Brie Larson keep a straight face while names, acting talents and personal quirks are insensitively discussed.

There’s also a fresh frame; Funny Or Die boss Will Ferrell closes down the set after it gets destroyed during a sprinkler disaster that nearly drowns a game Matthew McConaughey. Galifianakis and his team head cross-country to find stars and interview them in their homes, and there’s some neatly developed sketches that turn the format on its head; a one-night stand with Chrissy Teigen leads to a troubled visit from husband John Legend. Otherwise, it’s fun to see Jon Hamm, Peter Dinklage, and perennial Netflix self-parodist Keanu Reeves allowing pot-shots at themselves; the good humour is infectious.

The shortness of the interview sections works a little against the premise, but Between Two Ferns: The Movie works far better than, say Ali G In Da House in that it stays true to the interview-based origins of the conceit. And at the centre is a strong comic character; Galifianakis is vain, downtrodden, pretentious, snarky and not as smart as he thinks. There’s mileage in the way he takes down celebrities; in an age when few interviewers pack a punch, Between Two Ferns offers fake takedowns of today’s ‘hot idiots’ in entertaining fashion.

https://www.netflix.com/watch/80243600?source=35

Stranger Things 1-3 2016-2019 ****

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The brightest jewel in the Netflix crown is the Duffer Brothers riff on the kids sci-fi genre that apes Stephen King and various 80’s horror fads; with the latest series (3) taking place largely at a 4th of July carnival, Stranger Things is a cross-generational funhouse that, according to Netflix’s hall-of-mirrors figures, every sentient member of every household in the western world watched several times each within seconds of being put online. Stranger Things somehow found a sweet spot by fusing elements of King’s Firestarter (a girl on the run from authorities with telekinesis), plus the small-town kiddie-gang adventurers from It, then throws in the gelid alien attack from The Tommyknockers to boot. The big-draw name above the title name was Winona Ryder, although the series success has made pretty much everyone in the well-assembled cast a household name; Millie Bobbie Brown makes a big impression as Eleven, David Harbor exudes a gruff chemistry as police chief Jim Hopper, and the kids are great, with a smattering of 80’s names (Sean Aston, Paul Reiser, Matthew Modine, Cary Elwes) to keep older viewers engaged. As well as nailing the key font for the titles and the cod Tangerine Dream score, the key to the formula, kids and adults joining forces to fight to creatures leaking through government experiment portals, is that Stranger Things presents a warmly aspirational world, more focused on the likable characters than on the monsters. If the second series was too similar to the first, the third manages to balance up the gender issues and freshen up the team to good effect; Netflix need a dozen series that command loyalty like this to survive the streaming wars, so it’s likely that various expanded-universe incarnations of Stranger Things will be around long after the original lightning-in-a bottle cast have moved on.

https://www.netflix.com/watch/80057281?source=35

The Highwaymen 2019 ***

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Originally developed as a reteaming for Paul Newman and Robert Redford, this project was re-nosed with younger stars as part of Netflix’s on-going scramble for content. It’s obvious why they exhumed this project; The Highwayman has a fresh slant on a familiar story; it’s about the men who caught Bonnie and Clyde. While the 1967 film reflected the notion of Bonnie and Clyde as folk heroes, and dealt with the myth to good effect. John Lee Hancock’s thriller de-mythologises them, and presents them as anonymous, drug-addled and violent critters, almost entirely off-camera. Instead the focus is on Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson as the two Texas Rangers brought in by Texas state governor Miriam ‘Ma’ Ferguson (Kathy Bates) to hunt down the bank-robbers. The template is Costner’s The Untouchables, with a tight focus on frustrated men reaching within themselves for the strength to fight crime. The Highwaymen is some straight-up macho posturing, high on weapons, law, cigarettes and toughness, and it’ll be snapped up by older audiences who find the PC nature of modern films too weak to stomach. There’s lots to enjoy in two big star performances, a strong sense of period detail (as you’d expect from a $50 million production) and a decidedly old-school ‘respect the law’ POV.

https://www.netflix.com/title/80200571

Shaft 2019 ***

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Reports of franchise fatigue affecting the US box office miss one off-putting element; anyone who bought a ticket for Shaft, Isn’t It Romantic? Annihilation or many other titles must have felt sorely ripped-off when they found the film they just shelled out $20 bucks to see if freely available at home on HD. For major studios to cut their losses by selling the foreign rights to their films on Netlix can only create buyers remorse and disaffection with the cinema-going process in general. Of course, Tim Story’s rehash of elements from the past four Shaft films was always going to generate some unhappy customers; the late John Singleton’s 2000 version with Samuel l Jackson was awful, and unfortunately that’s the poisoned well that this 2019 incarnation draws most of it’s mojo from. Jessie T Usher is JJ Shaft, an FBI cyber-crime fighter who joins forces with his dad, and then eventually his grandfather (a spruce Richard Roundtree) to resolve the death of his friend. The gags are laboured, the action undistinguished, the music isn’t the original Shaft theme, and the locations are faked NYC. Roundtree is great, and the final shoot-out is worth the wait, but this version of Shaft feels like something of a con-job all round.