“Ava” is also new to Blu-Ray this week.
It’s my general policy when reviewing movies to focus solely on the movie itself and ignore external factors. However, given the controversy regarding the credibility of Frank Sheeran, played by Robert De Niro in “The Irishman,” I find it hard to disregard the question and think it’s important to address the elephant in the room before moving forward with discussing the movie. I’ll put it simply: I don’t care. Meaning, the real-life speculation surrounding Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance does not impact my judgment in terms of the quality of the movie and elements such as the characters we meet, the story being told, the cinematography, and so forth. If I want facts and theories I’ll read a book on the subject or watch a documentary. I take “The Irishman” with the same grain of salt that I take any other movie based on history and recognize that to one degree or another, creative license will be taken.
With the film, director Martin Scorsese is in peak form with a smartly plotted, well-paced, energetic epic masterpiece. It’s said that directors generally don’t get better as they get older, but Scorsese proves that adage severely wrong. Working from a screenplay by Steven Zaillian, which is based on a book by Charles Brandt, Scorsese has created a movie so compelling and masterfully directed that it’s easy to get captivated by its narrative. The fear of dedicating three and a half hours of one’s life to watching a movie is that what we’re shown may be bloated or self-indulgent. “The Irishman” is neither. This is a lean movie for its length, without a single unnecessary moment or superfluous frame.
We first meet Sheeran in late middle-age, in 1975, as he is driving from Philadelphia to Detroit to attend a wedding. Along for the ride is Sheeran’s friend, mentor, and protector, Russell Buffalino (Joe Pesci), as well as Sheeran’s wife Irene (Stephanie Kurtzuba) and Russell’s wife Carrie (Kathrine Narducci). Anyone familiar with Scorsese’s filmography will know that in his movies, such as “Raging Bull,” “Goodfellas,” and “Casino,” life and relationships are in one of two stages: The younger years when men are men and women are a pleasure to be around; and the later years when men are men and women are a pain in the ass. The constant cigarette breaks for the wives throughout the trip are a strong indicator of where we are at the onset.
One of the smoke breaks for the wives happens to be near a truck stop where Sheeran first met Buffalino. This leads us to a flashback of 20 years previous and the infamous de-aging technology to make Pesci and De Niro look younger. Many found it distracting but I did not. This is in large part due to these actors having famous faces and we know what they’ve looked like for the past 40 years. However, this technology is used only as needed during the first hour or so, and I found it to be tastefully done. Pesci in particular looked very good. De Niro looked a bit off with his ruddy cheeks, but for me this worked to get me to see him as the character, no different than when actors use make up and prosthetics. When I looked at him, I saw the character of Ed Sheeran, not Robert De Niro playing a part. This is a good thing.
It’s great to see Scorsese work with his trusty repertory company again. Most notably Pesci and De Niro, but also Harvey Keitel, who has a small role in “The Irishman” as mob boss Angelo Bruno. We also finally get to see the legendary Al Pacino come into the Scorsese fold with his intense, electrifying performance as teamster union leader Jimmy Hoffa. While “The Irishman” doesn’t close the case on Hoffa’s disappearance, the events depicted are thought-provoking and raise questions. But if a movie is masterfully crafted enough to get you thinking and get you talking, then it succeeded in doing what all great art does: It inspires. Buy it.
My eyes ached from the rolling they did when I saw the preview for “Ava,” which appeared to be yet another female assassin movie with multiple scenes in which a 5’5”, 140 pound woman takes on a multitude of very accommodating stuntmen all at the same time. Those scenes are certainly there, but they’re smarter than most. Ava (Jessica Chastain) uses her wits and cunning in addition to physical force, which is a welcome new layer over comparative movies like “Anna” and “Atomic Blonde.”
I was also shocked to see that the movie focuses heavily on Ava’s personal life. She has a complicated relationship with her sister Judy (Jess Weixler), made even muddier with the fact that Judy is about to marry Ava’s ex-lover Michael (Common). Ava also has a strained relationship with her passive-aggressive mother Bobbi, played by Geena Davis. Davis has been working steadily but not in anything I’ve seen recently, and it was a pleasant surprise to see her name in the credits and great to see her on screen again.
The big problem with “Ava” is that it focuses so much attention on the personal story that it neglects the bigger picture story of her handler Duke (John Malkovich) trying to protect her from getting killed by rival assassin Simon (Colin Farrell) after a hit of hers goes bad. Normally, the bigger picture story is the “A” story and the smaller family stuff is the “B” story.” It seems like “Ava” screenwriter Matthew Newton was trying to flip this convention and make the family plot the “A” story and the assassin plot the “B” story.
My guess is that this innovation could potentially work, but it doesn’t work here. For it to work the movie would have to be a bit longer and Simon’s motivations would have to be clearer. His concern over her messed up hit is a weak reason for the action he takes. Some past history or some kind of professional grudge between Ava and Simon would have sufficed as a catalyst to move the plot in the right direction. As it is, Ava doesn’t even know that Simon is after her until a half an hour is left to go in the movie, and from there the movie dashes to the end with a set up for a sequel. I’m ambivalent about whether or not there will be a sequel, since in spite of strong performances all around, the best I can recommend for this movie is to Stream it.
“The Last Blockbuster,” a documentary on the last remaining Blockbuster Video in Bend, Oregon; and “The Cancer Documentary,” which addresses the worldwide cancer epidemic head-on, exploring an aspect of cancer that is often overlooked: Its connection with diet and lifestyle.