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THE IRISHMAN: MASTERFUL MOVIEMAKING

[The Irishman is playing in a limited number of theaters until November 14, when it will debut worldwide on Netflix. The streaming service has taken a lot of hits from the movie industry, but its support of major filmmakers cannot be denied. Exceptional movies like The Irishman, Dolemite is My Name, and the upcoming Marriage Story and The Two Popes are ample evidence that the “new kid on the block” is investing in quality entertainment.]

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I don’t go to a three-and-a-half hour movie in a gleeful state of mind. I hope I will be swept up by the film and remain unaware of the minutes ticking by. In the case of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman I was aware of the positive response it has received since its debut weeks ago at the New York Film Festival…but I’ll confess that I still had a “show me” attitude.

Now I’ve been shown. This quiet epic revisits a milieu the director has famously explored before but it never feels redundant or overly familiar. The main character is an insider named Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) who enjoys a close relationship with mobsters of all stripes as well as formidable Teamsters Union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Frank tells his story to someone just off-camera from his wheelchair in a nursing home, and the result is ruminative if not regretful. Inevitably there are echoes of Goodfellas but the movie comes from a completely different perspective.

As for length, I will quote pioneer producer Sam Goldwyn, who when asked how long a good movie should be, replied, “How long is a movie good?” This one is better than good. I was riveted to the screen until the last twenty minutes or so; that’s when I was ready for it to wrap up and became impatient.

Working from a screenplay by the gifted Steven Zaillian, Scorsese, cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker take the time to survey every scene and wring every drop of emotion out of the incidents that make up their story. Some sequences even play out in slow-motion. The filmmaker allows us to savor the details that fill the screen, from vintage cars to storefronts and neighborhoods as they looked in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. All of this is set to a playlist of popular records of those years, from Eddie Heywood’s “Canadian Sunset” to Johnny Ray’s “Cry.”

As to the visual effects wizardry that de-ages De Niro, Pacino, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel, I surrendered to it early on. Seeing is believing, where movies are concerned, and if all visual evidence tells me I am watching De Niro and his costars as they looked and behaved some forty years ago, I have no reason to think otherwise. Here is movie magic of a very high order.

Scorsese and Zaillian make a point of telling us, through visual notes over freeze-frames, that most of the men we meet during this expansive saga came to violent ends. This adds a layer of doom to the proceedings even during relatively tranquil moments. Aside from De Niro, who is narrating the story, no one gets out alive.

De Niro’s face tells much of the story even when he isn’t speaking. He rises through the ranks of a mob family because he is a good soldier; no one questions his loyalty to mafia mentor Russell Buffalino (Pesci) or his unwavering support of Hoffa. Pesci underplays his part, ceding the role of loose cannon to Pacino, whose stubborn adherence to rules of conduct lends the film a welcome touch of humor.

When Hollywood introduced the public to gangster films in the 1930s, censors and civic leaders worried that moviegoers would find their exploits exciting, even glamorous. I don’t think anyone could level the same charge at The Irishman. There is nothing appealing about the way of life depicted here, even compared to Scorsese’s earlier films. Yet these characters are undeniably compelling. I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. It would be churlish to complain too much about overlength when a movie offers so many rewards.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at leonardmaltin.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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