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When A Film Runs Over Three Hours, It Usually Deserves To

by : Cameron Frew on : 28 Aug 2019 16:34
Marvel/Netflix

Gone With The Wind, The Godfather: Part II, and now The Irishman: what do they all have in common? They’re all more than three hours long. 

The New York Film festival recently revealed (subject to edits) Martin Scorsese’s inbound gangster epic will run at a deliciously enormous 210 minutes – that’s three-and-a-half hours of pure, sweary, razmatazz prose from the legendary filmmaker.

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The movie, which sees the reunion of Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci – as well as the long-awaited introduction of Al Pacino into Scorsese’s pantheon of icons – will hit UK cinemas on November 8, before debuting on Netflix on November 27.

Check out the trailer below: 

For lovers of the theatrical, this is fabulous news – to be starved of Scorsese’s latest yarn on the big screen is as close to a crime as the film world can produce. Netflix’s Roma, an Academy Awards hit, was given a fairly lax cinematic release treatment.

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But the immediate impact of that runtime is seismic: 210 minutes is no small feat. But there are a few things that should bring caution to the weary and bladder-conscious out there.

Scorsese has a solid track record – understatement of the year, his lowest rated film on Rotten Tomatoes is 68% – but his tendency to lean towards the bloated is no surprise. Gangs of New York runs at 168 minutes; The Aviator runs at 170 minutes; Silence runs at 161 minutes and The Wolf of Wall Street clocks in at 180 minutes.

But he’s not a director without control of his indulgence – his films have a calculated sense of pace. Silence is purposely languid and brooding, establishing a gently horrifying understanding of its historic subject matter. But look at efforts like Taxi Driver, Cape Fear and Goodfellas – they’re pacy, tightly-knit parables designed to reel you in for the ride.

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The Irishman Netflix 2The Irishman Netflix 2Netflix

The Irishman will chronicle the life of mob hitman Frank Sheeran (De Niro). Here’s Netflix’s synopsis: 

An epic saga of organized crime in post-war America told through the eyes of World War II veteran Frank Sheeran, a hustler and hitman who worked alongside some of the most notorious figures of the 20th century.

Spanning decades, the film chronicles one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in American history, the disappearance of legendary union boss Jimmy Hoffa, and offers a monumental journey through the hidden corridors of organized crime: its inner workings, rivalries and connections to mainstream politics.

Based on the book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt, Scorsese’s film was always going to be a gargantuan feast. Not only is spending time with De Niro, Pesci and Pacino all at once a gift from the gods, but the story demands length.

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From the titbit materials we have so far, the film looks set to encapsulate the best elements of Goodfellas and The Departed, while also reaching for Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In America levels of gangster grandeur (that film, in its longest cut, runs at 229 minutes).

Films that breach that intimidating three-hour mark are (usually) made that way for a reason. There are exceptions: Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate for example – the much maligned, devastatingly produced follow-up from The Deer Hunter (219 minutes) is considered one of the worst box office bombs of all time.

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But look at the timeless legacy of three-hour-plus masterclasses: The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King; Schindler’s List and The Green Mile, to name a few.

The 180 minute milestone was commonplace in a former day and age. People would flock to their local screens for a proper day out at the pictures, with butts planted firmly in seats for a sprawling, epic historical romance: the best example is Gone With The Wind.

With all the bells and whistles, such as a musical overture, it’s a titanic 221 minutes long – the grand summation of Hollywood’s love affair with lengthy prestige features. It’s not quite like the peacock levels of endurance required for some films: such as Jacques Rivette’s 13-hour long Out 1 (granted, that’s normally split up for screenings).

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Bear in mind, ye olde releases often had an intermission; giving viewers a chance to catch their breath, empty their bladder, refill their snacks and generally save themselves from movie-watching fatigue.

Intermissions are no longer the done thing: Stanley Kubrick favoured them in a couple of his releases, namely Barry Lyndon and 2001: A Space Odyssey (2018’s re-release of the latter even kept it in place).

Quentin Tarantino’s 70mm roadshow edition of The Hateful Eight (at 187 minutes, it’s 20 minutes longer than the standard theatrical release) had an overture and intermission. So why are modern audiences not afforded the luxury of a mid-film break?

The Hateful EightThe Hateful EightThe Weinstein Company

The truth is, the issue lies with both filmmakers and audiences; let me explain. Yes, since the turn of the millennium we’ve adored efforts like Return of the King. But there is a terminal tendency for films to be far too long in mainstream releases.

The most acute example is the Transformers series. Contrast those films with the likes of Doctor Zhivago, Seven Samurai and Spartacus; by design, they are entirely different. On one side, you have a franchise of mass-marketed, smash-em-up CGI romps, on the other you have epics – which the Transformers films simply aren’t.

Coming from Michael Bay, a man who loves explosion-based extravagance, the series – while backed up by technical wizardry – is plagued by tiresome runtimes. The fifth film, The Last Knight, is an egregious testament to all the problems with the Transformers movies; clunky, boring, incoherent and outrageously long at 154 minutes.

A film’s length should be a cause for the filmmakers to allow their material to breathe; venturing out through the threads of their story and reaching an engrossing conclusion.

The Last Knight pulled in more than $600 million at the box office; whereas Blade Runner 2049 – a far, far superior sci-fi effort with a similarly long but justified runtime (163 minutes) only made $259 million.

Transformers The Last KnightTransformers The Last KnightParamount Pictures

This introduces people’s love affair with the 90-minute movie. Today’s modern world is a busy one – people don’t always have the time to sit and immerse themselves in three hours of cinema. A recent release is Crawl; an alligator horror flick that runs at a crisp 89 minutes.

But one major pop culture trend crumbles the argument for shorter films: the binge-watch.

Platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime and even BBC iPlayer have enabled audiences to watch hours-upon-hours of non-stop TV. When Stranger Things‘ third season hit the platform, Netflix revealed that 40.7 million accounts had watched some of it within its first four days of release, while 18.2 million people had already finished it.

So what is the difference between sitting down to watch a three-hour movie and watching 10 hours of a TV show without stopping?

The answer is likely circumstantial: if you’re in a cinema, you’re locked in. You can’t pause, there may be anxiety over exiting the screening, and even the worry about needing to pee, in my experience, makes you need to pee.

Whereas, from the comfort of your own home: you can pause; you can get up and grab some crisps or make a sandwich mid-movie; you can pop in and out of the film almost as if it is on-demand.

The Irishman being released on Netflix is a blessing and a curse; while its quick four-week switch to streaming does little to help the cinema industry, it’ll entice cautious viewers at home to take the plunge without the commitment of a cinema trip.

We should celebrate its length. Avengers: Endgame, arguably the biggest cinematic event of all time, ran at just over three hours, and millions took time out of their day over a number of weeks to see it multiple times.

With the mass market tending to lean on superhero films, sequels, remakes and reboots, Scorsese is one of the few filmmakers – like Christopher Nolan and Tarantino – who are given free reign of a canvas. That, in itself, is an event.

The Irishman will have a limited release in UK cinemas on November 8, and will hit Netflix on November 27.

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Cameron Frew

After graduating from Glasgow Caledonian University with an NCTJ and BJTC-accredited Multimedia Journalism degree, Cameron ventured into the world of print journalism at The National, while also working as a freelance film journalist on the side, becoming an accredited Rotten Tomatoes critic in the process. He's now left his Scottish homelands and taken up residence at UNILAD as a journalist.

Topics: Featured, Film, Netflix, The Irishman

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