Michael Hayward's Blog

Review: "The Irishman"

Michael Hayward

In the publicity accompanying the launch of The Irishman, Martin Scorsese's new three-and-a-half hour long mob film, much has been made of the fact that "digital de-aging" technologies have been used on the most glittering of the film's pantheon of senior stars—Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel—allowing them to portray younger versions of their characters.

The result is that, even with the best intentions in the world, it is difficult to watch The Irishman without wondering—just a bit—whether the Robert De Niro up there on the big screen is "analog De Niro," or whether it is a computer-assisted transformation, with the "real" De Niro's image having been sampled digitally, the resulting flood of data being ingested by some fantastically sophisticated algorithm, where it was massaged and manipulated by state-of-the-art computers working day and night, in the course of which the texture of Mr. De Niro's skin was smoothed and moistened to the desired degree of pliability, its tone colour-corrected and tinted to indicate the required state of health and youth, with the final result—gigabytes of a digitally-enhanced De Niro—stored on a vast array of disks for later projection in theatres, and/or streamed (to those who prefer to consume their cinema on couches or bean-bag chairs at home).

And it is worth considering just how big an "ask" it is to expect these digital de-aging algorithms to deliver youthful on-screen results, given the considerable seniority of the input (that is to say: the age of the analog actors themselves). In The Irishman, Robert De Niro (76) plays hitman Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran, from age 24 to 80; Al Pacino (79) plays Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa from age 39 to 62; Joe Pesci (76) plays mob boss Russell Bufalino from about 50 to age 72. And the results—perhaps surprisingly—aren't bad.

Yes: occasionally you do get the feeling that you're watching actors who have perhaps overindulged in plastic surgery, and who might have allowed a trowel or two more pancake makeup to be applied to their pores than was advisable. But this is certainly not much worse than we've already seen onscreen in the pre-digital era. And occasionally you'll catch a brief, lifelike gleam emanating from Pacino's eyes mid-rant—which is enough to make you entirely forget the layers of digital technology that intervene between the two of you.

The most interesting thing to consider about digital de-aging is not so much whether the software works: it does, more or less, and appears to be a huge leap forward from earlier attempts to do much the same thing, such as in the 2008 film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, where Brad Pitt (then 44) played a character who ages backwards from age 84 to infancy. No: what is far more interesting about digital de-aging in film is to consider the effect it might have on extending the careers—perhaps even to the point of eternally—of the iconic (and therefor highly bankable) "brand name" actors and actresses.

We have already seen several examples of what might be called "necro-thespianism": long-dead personalities who have been hauled from their graves and pressed back into service to hawk products such as Diet Coke (Humphrey Bogart, Louis Armstrong, and James Cagney) and the Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner (Fred Astaire). So why, as long as these practices remain profitable to the principals (or their heirs), wouldn't we expect to see more of the same? (In fact a recent news report announced that James Dean, dead since 1955, was slated to "star" in an upcoming film set in the Vietnam War era.)

You can bet that Netflix—which provided the funding to underwrite Scorsese's new (and over-long) feature film, in exchange for exclusive streaming rights—will be carefully evaluating the return on their investment. Just how much profit will their megabuck investment generate for shareholders? They are hoping, of course, for a bevy of Academy Award nominations (or—even better—Oscar wins). And, once The Irishman's brief theatrical run ends, they're also hoping for a big bump in the number of new Netflix subscribers.

So the question being asked is, in a sense, a version of: just how big a "brand" is a Martin Scorsese mob film nowadays? How many of us are eager to take another stroll down those familiar Mean Streets? How many will want to spend a bit more time hanging out in that Casino? How many Netflix virgins or lapsed subscribers are willing to sign on the dotted line in order to have a few more beers with the Goodfellas?

Only time will tell whether The Irishman proves to be the last hurrah of the Scorsese mob. Stay tuned...

The Irishman is playing at the Vancity Theatre starting November 15th, for a one-week run. So if you want to sit in comfy seats, and watch what The Guardian has called "Scorsese's finest film for 30 years" projected on a BIG screen, in crisp, high resolution video, your ears bathing in a wash of fabulous Dolby 7.1 sound—and trust me: there is no better way to see a feature film—then this is your chance. Tickets can be purchased here.



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