The Irishman (2019)

The Irishman

It is what it is. In 1975 mob hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) and his boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and their wives are on an east-west roadtrip, their ultimate destination Detroit for the wedding of Russell’s niece. An elderly Sheeran tells the story of their association as a meet-cute when he was driving a meat truck in the 1950s and his rise through the ranks, his appointment to a Teamster position under Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) the union supremo with deep Mafia ties. It becomes apparent that there is an ulterior motive to the journey and their role in America’s evolution particularly with regard to the Kennedy family is traced against a series of hits Sheeran carries out that reverberate through US history… What kind of man makes a call like that. Not so much Goodfellas as Oldfellas, a ruminative journey through midcentury America via the prism of a violent hitman who allegedly befriended and later murdered infamous Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa. This is toned-down Scorsese, with muted colours to match the readjusted and very mature framing of Mafia doings in terms of the impact it has on family, chiefly Sheeran’s sensitive daughter Peggy (played by Anna Paquin as an adult) whose mostly silent presence functions as the story’s moral centre:  her horror of Bufalino is a constant reprimand. Steven (Schindler’s List, Gangs of New York) Zaillian’s adaptation of Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses is not for the fainthearted:  its overlength is sustained mainly by performance with a powerhouse set of principals (plus Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale et al) battling against a lot of unmemorable and somewhat repetitive dialogue (but when it’s good, it’s great), under-dramatised setpieces and a fatally bloated midsection (as in life, so in narrative), much of which is spent in courtrooms. Every time there’s a lull in the action someone needs Frank to off the source of their discontent and sometimes this is handled with straightforward exposition, sometimes in a montage of Frank disposing gun after gun off a bridge. That’s the story punctuation. Mostly however the issue is with DeNiro’s dull and wearying voiceover. This is not the funny jive kick of Ray Liotta in the aforementioned 1990 classic, it’s a man utterly comfortable in his killer’s skin who doesn’t defend himself because it’s who he is and he is not given to introspection, a flaw in the anchoring perspective. If we’re seeing it, we don’t need to be told too. The de-ageing effect is jarring because we don’t see the DeNiro of Mean Streets, rather a jowly preternaturally middle-aged man who shuffles in an old man’s gait. While Pesci is calm and chillingly content in his own position as a capo, it’s Pacino (in his first collaboration with Scorsese) who lifts the mood and fills the air with punchy, positive ions, giving the movie a much-needed burst of energy. But even he seems to be circling the wagons around his own self-satisfied persona as the same story/work-life issues repeatedly arise. It’s a big movie about nasty men who (perhaps) played a huge role in the shaping of their country and the hierarchies of cultures and ethnicities are regularly invoked in a tale which may or may not be true. There are some potentially amusing gatherings of men in black suits at family events. But funny they ain’t.  It’s sad perhaps that Scorsese didn’t make this for cinema and after three weeks on limited release it is fated for eternity on a streaming service:  a sign of the times and perhaps the swansong of a major filmmaker at the end of the 2010s. The nail in the coffin of an era? After this we might be asking not just who killed Jimmy Hoffa but who killed the mob movie. Late Scorsese, in more ways than one. They can whack the President, they can whack the president of the union

Oh … Rosalinda!! (1955)

Oh Roslaninda alt.jpg

Once the music is started we can’t talk.  You see the place will be crowded with foreigners. In 1955 Occupied Vienna, black-market dealer Dr. Falke aka The Bat/Die Fledermaus (Anton Walbrook) moves freely through the French, British, American and Russian sectors, dealing in champagne and caviar among the highest echelons of the allied powers. After a costume party, French Colonel Gabriel Eisenstein (Michael Redgrave) plays a practical joke on a drunken Falke, depositing him, asleep and dressed as a bat, in the lap of a patriotic Russian statue, to be discovered the following morning by irate Russian soldiers. Falke is nearly arrested until his friend party-giver General Orlofsky (Anthony Quayle) of the USSR intervenes. A vengeful Falke plans an elaborate practical joke on his friend, involving Orlofsky,  British Army major (Dennis Price), Eisenstein’s beautiful wife Rosalinda (Ludmilla Tchérina), her maid (Anneliese Rothenberger) and a masked ball where no one is what they seem. Complicating matters is American Captain Alfred Westerman (Mel Ferrer), an old flame of Rosalinda’s who is determined to take advantage of her husband’s absence and become her lover once again … Just watch how I get out of my own troubles. One of Powell and Pressburger’s odder productions which elicited little more than critical ire upon release (it was exhibited on a double bill with The Big Combo), it can now be seen as a deliriously eccentric and audacious comic account of the post-war occupied city of Vienna, through the updated lens of Die Fledermaus (The Bat), Strauss’ 1874 operetta, with new lyrics in English by Dennis Arundell. Densely coloured, beautifully designed by Hein Heckroth and performed with gusto by some of the best actors of the era representing the different occupying powers in their nationality and personification while a husband and wife renew their acquaintance in this romantic catch-chase quartet. Quayle is excellent but Walbrook is supreme as the kind of characterful ringmaster he had already essayed in Ophüls’ La Ronde, keen that the occupying powers swiftly depart.  With every component of this indulgent avant garde take on a genre type more or less moribund since the Thirties concluding in a gorgeous masked ball, it’s a beautiful resolutely studio-bound theatrical spectacle. Considered part of a loose trilogy from Powell and Pressburger along with The Red Shoes/Tales of Hoffman even if Redgrave winds up dancing more than prima ballerina Tchérina, at  one point introduced to her own husband as Olga Volga, a star from behind the Iron Curtain. Redgrave, Rothenberger and Quayle sing while all other cast members’ singing voices are dubbed. Look quickly for Arthur Mullard as a Russian guard and future director John Schlesinger in a Jeep. Come a bit closer. Is there anything I can do for you – or you – or you?

Against All Flags (1952)

Against All Flags.jpg

I don’t like the cut of your sail!  In 1700 British officer Lt Brian Hawke (Errol Flynn) on the British ship Monsoon infiltrates a group of pirates led by Roc Brasiliano (Anthony Quinn) located on Libertatia on the coast of the island of Madagascar  He poses as a deserter and falls in love with pirate captain ‘Spitfire’ Stevens (Maureen O’Hara). He proves his worth and is aboard Brasiliano’s vessel when they loot a Moghul ship and kidnap a harem of women protected by their chaperone Molvina MacGregor (Mildred Natwick) who hides the identity of Princess Patma (Alice Kelley). Meanwhile, Hawke is gathering information through his romance with Spitfire to attack the pirate base …  You’re a real rooster, aren’t you!  Nobody is who they claim to be here in a movie that’s full of rousing action, furious innuendo and Taming of the Shrew-ishness. O’Sullivan is resplendent as the pirate queen and Flynn gets one of his last good action roles (and his final pirate part in Hollywood) although a life of excess had already taken a toll on his glorious looks. They have great fun knocking sparks off each other, particularly when he’s training her to be a lady and instructing her in etiquette. The moment when O’Hara, all decked out in her piratical duds, outbids Flynn for Kelley at a slave auction and says to Flynn, I think I prefer you as a bachelor is just a preview of coming attractions:  she then pulls back the girl’s veil, sees how beautiful her new possession is and observes to Flynn, Curse me if I can blame you too much! One for a queer film compilation for sure. Written by Aeneas MacKenzie as a vehicle for Douglas Fairbanks Jr. it was then rewritten by Joseph Hoffman, and directed for the most part by George Sherman but when Flynn broke his ankle production was postponed, Sherman moved on and Douglas Sirk took over a further ten days’ filming upon Flynn’s eventual return. It looks stunning thanks to Russell Metty and Hans Salter handles the boisterous score. Lambasted by the critics, this made a shedload of money in its time. When he comes back with blood on his hands then he can hoist his own black flag but not before!

The Vikings (1958)

The vikings.jpg

What would be the worst thing for a Viking? Viking Prince Einar (Kirk Douglas) doesn’t know it but his worst enemy, the slave Erik (Tony Curtis), is actually his half brother and their father King Ragnar’s (Ernest Borgnine) legitimate heir. Their feud only intensifies when Einar kidnaps Princess Morgana (Janet Leigh), on her way to be the intended bride of the brutal Northumbrian King Aella (Frank Thring). Einar intends to make her his own. However Morgana has eyes only for Erik – leading to the capture of  Ragnar and a terrible final attempt to win her heart ...  Let’s not question flesh for wanting to remain flesh. Good looking, well put together and great fun, and that’s just the cast, in this spectacular historical epic, an action adventure produced by Kirk Douglas that capitalises on his muscular masculinity opposite husband and wife team Curtis and Leigh who get to seriously smoulder for the cameras in their love scenes:  it was the third of their onscreen pairings. With some very fruity language, mistaken identity, axe-throwing, pillaging, actual bodice-ripping, walking the plank for fun, unconscious sibling rivalry, brawny sailors, death by wolf pit, romance and swashbuckling, this has everything going for it except horned helmets. It might well be about eighth or ninth century Viking lord Ragnar Lodbrok and the probably-real Northumbrian king Aella (who died 867) but it’s really about Kirk and Tony and Janet. Jack Cardiff shoots the expansive Technicolor images, and director Richard Fleischer lets every character have their moment in this fast-paced entertainment. The beautiful tapestry-style animated titles are voiced by Orson Welles and the incredible score is by (paradoxically unsung) soundtrack hero Mario Naschimbene who brings both vigour and mystery to this good-humoured story of war and violence: you will believe that those voices in the sky are coming from the heavens. Adapted by Dale Wasserman from the 1951 novel The Viking by Edison Marshall, with a screenplay by Calder Willingham, this is one of the very best action-adventure films of all time with some great editing by Elmo Williams who also helmed the second unit and made the TV series inspired by it, Tales of the Vikings, also produced by Douglas’  Bryna Productions. Within a few short years Douglas would cement his legend as a Hollywood liberal with the cry, I am Spartacus! but for now it’s Odin!

Stargate (1994)

Stargate

Give my regards to King Tut, asshole! In modern-day Egypt, hieroglyphics scholar Daniel Jackson (James Spader) teams up with retired US Army Col. Jack O’Neil (Kurt Russell)  on behalf of the military to unlock the code of a stone gate uncovered in 1928 which it transpires is an interstellar gateway to an ancient Egypt-like world in our universe. They arrive on planet Abydos ruled by the despotic alien sungod Ra (Jaye Davidson), who holds the key to the Earth travellers’ safe return. Now, in order to escape from their intergalactic purgatory, Jackson and O’Neil have to convince the planet’s people that Ra must be overthrown but to get back home Jackson has to realign the Stargate .I’m here in case you succeed. With a copy of Erich von Däniken’s Chariot of the Gods in one hand and a panoply of special effects in the other producer Mario Kassar and director Roland Emmerich delve into the world of ancient astronaut theory (for more of this, watch Ancient Aliens on The Hitler Channel). The references to Conan Doyle, Jules Verne and George Lucas are there and there’s the added virtue of a gung ho soldier grieving his child – who you gonna call? Kurt Russell, of course:  who better to stir up the natives into a revolution on a place trapped in Ancient-Egypt time? And the other half of this double act, Spader, romances ancient Sha’uri (Mili Avital) for good measure. Nutty and plausible for the first sixty-five minutes,  then it trundles into the realm of total absurdity with Davidson’s body-possessing alien posing as fey god act just a little de trop, as Diana Vreeland (or Celeste Holm) might have put it. Epic good fun. Written by Emmerich and Dean Devlin. There can be only one Ra

Play It As It Lays (1972)

Play it as it Lays.jpg

I’ll tell you what I do. I try to live in the now. Burned-out B-movie actress Maria (Tuesday Weld), depressed and frustrated with her loveless marriage to an ambitious film director, Carter Lang (Adam Roarke) who would rather work on his career than on his relationship with her, numbs herself with drugs and sex with strangers. Only her friendship with a sensitive gay movie producer, B.Z. (Anthony Perkins), offers a semblance of solace. But even that relationship proves to be fleeting amidst the empty decadence of Hollywood as they both start to crack up ... How do you get to the desert? You drive there. Husband and wife screenwriting team Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne adapted Didion’s sensational novel of alienation and its transposition to the screen by director Frank Perry captures its existential sense of crisis. Weld is perfect as the model turned actress whose flashbacks are a faux-documentary and some biker movies she has made with her husband (and Roarke starred in some himself, of course). Her narrative is determined by movie business ghouls and Sidney Katz’s editing plays into her disjointed sense that she is losing control in a chilling world where her retarded daughter is locked away and she undergoes an illegal abortion.  Weld is teamed up again with Perkins after Pretty Poison and they work beautifully together – you really believe in their tender friendship. An overlooked gem which reminds us what a fine performer Weld is and also the fact that Charles Bukowski wrote about her in the poem the best way to get famous is to run away.  A cult classic. The fact is, when an actress walks off a picture people get the idea she doesn’t want to work

The Goldfinch (2019)

The Goldfinch.png

We don’t say fake. It’s reproduction. Theodore Decker (Oakes Fegley/ Ansel Elgort) was 13 years old when his mother Audrey (Hailey Wist) was killed in a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He is taken in by the Upper East Side Barbour family whose mother Samantha (Nicole Kidman) understands his fragility while his estranged friendship with her younger son Andy (Ryan Houst) is rekindled.  She discovers an engraved ring in Theo’s possession and he returns it to Hobie (Jeffrey Wright) at the antiques and restoration store Hobart & Blackwell where he recognises the lovely redheaded girl Pippa (Aimee Laurence/Ashleigh Cummings) who was standing beside him just before the bomb exploded and they become fast friends. She is the niece of Welty Blackwell (Robert Joy) whose dying words to Theo were to take his mom’s favourite painting the 1654 masterpiece The Goldfinch from the bomb site and a dazed Theo puts it in his backpack and stores it at his home.  All seems on an even keel until his freshly detoxed loser father Larry (Luke Wilson) reappears and abruptly takes him to Nevada to set up house with live-in cocktail waitress girlfriend Xandra (Sarah Paulson). Life in the desert has an alien quality and he is befriended by sun-hating Ukrainian Goth Boris (Finn Wolfhard/Aneurian Barnard) who introduces him to a supply of mind-numbing drugs and alcohol while he himself has to deal with a violent father. Theo realises his own father is trying to rip him off and use his private school funds to gamble so escapes back to NYC where we find him as a young man working for Hobie selling upscaled faux antiques and reunited with the Barbour family:  Andy and Mr Barbour (Boyd Gaines) have died in a sailing accident and Samantha is unhinged by depression but delighted to see him again.  He gets engaged to her daughter Kitsey (Willa Fitzgerald) but before long finds out he is not her true love, while Pippa remains out of reach.  After a bad sale to vicious art collector Lucius Reeve (Denis O’Hare) Theo discovers that The Goldfinch has been used as collateral in a criminal deal in Miami. When he runs into the grownup Boris in a bar he finds the beloved painting is not in the safe place where he stored it after all… In Amsterdam I dreamt I saw my mother again.  Adapted by Peter Straughan from Donna Tartt’s bestselling Bildungsroman, I arrive unburdened by reading the 880-page behemoth, an overlength only deserving of Tolstoy or someone of that order. Even without that experience, this has clear affinities with Dickens and allusions to Salinger, carrying with it an understanding of the difficulties of childhood and the intensity of friendship in a narrative dominated by the symbolic qualities of guilt. This is the opposite of a fast-moving art heist movie. It has an endearing shaggy dog style only broken by the fragmented nature of the storytelling and a late slackening in pace followed by the sudden violence of the ending in Amsterdam where the titular painting is eventually located and subject of a wild shootout. Much of the pleasure is in the juxtaposing of alienating landscapes of arid desert and rinky dink city locales. Kidman and Wolfhard are rivetting, Fegley is quite impenetrable but that’s not a bad thing given the story and how it is revealed, while Elgort is rather problematic as usual. Some of these performances might have been more effective had the story been told in sequence. There’s a wonderful, sonorous score by Trevor Gureckis and, if you allow it, much of this film will bring you into a world of childhood and loss rarely portrayed on screen. This, after all, is about the look of love and the love of looking and their complementary rewards and the only mystery is why this particular painting elicits such desire.

Death Defying Acts (2007)

Death Defying Acts.jpg

We had a real double act, my mam and me.  It’s 1926. Upon arriving in Edinburgh, Scotland for a series of mind-boggling performances, master illusionist and escapologist Harry Houdini (Guy Pearce) offers an impressive cash reward of $10,000 to any supposed psychic who can accurately tell him his beloved late mother’s exact last words. Gorgeous local swindler Mary McGarvie (Catherine Zeta-Jones) rises to the challenge and together with her streetwise daughter Benji (Saoirse Ronan) leads Houdini on in a dangerous flirtation that blurs the line between reality and paranoia –  but she has reckoned without the machinations of his canny manager Sugarman (Timothy Spall) who knows a con when he sees it but has his own reasons to let this Oedipal obsession play out in the world of spiritualists, fake or not … Nothing in this world’s free. It’s an engaging premise and well staged but this drama of who’s-fooling-who sadly won’t hoodwink the audience. Pearce is hardly Houdini although he’s a charmer whether tied up underwater or on the surface, and Jones’ and Ronan’s lively performances as grifters are marvellous but can’t conceal the dramatic deficit at the centre of the narrative. It looks wonderful and is beautifully staged but never really takes off, the mystery of Houdini’s personality is never convincingly exposed and of course as we know it ends in tragedy. Written by Tony Grisoni and Brian Ward, directed by Gillian Armstrong. I used to be a nice man you know. Do you believe me?

 

Under the Silver Lake (2018)

Under the Silver Lake poster.png

Everything you ever hoped for, everything you ever dreamed of being a part of, is a fabrication. Sam (Andrew Garfield) is a disenchanted 33-year-old who discovers a mysterious woman, Sarah (Riley Keough) frolicking in his apartment’s swimming pool.  He befriends her little bichon frisé dog Coca Cola. She has a drink with him and they watch How to Marry a Millionaire in the apartment she shares with two other women.  Her disappearance coincides with that of billionaire Jefferson Sevence (Chris Gann) whose body is eventually found with Sarah’s. Sam embarks on a surreal quest across Los Angeles to decode the secret behind her disappearance, leading him into the murkiest depths of mystery, scandal, and conspiracy as he descends to a labyrinth beneath the City of Angels while engaging with Comic Fan (Patrick Fischler) author of Under the Silver Lake a comic book about urban legends who he believes knows what’s behind a series of dog killings and other conspiracy theories who himself is murdered …Something really big is going on. I know it. Written, produced and directed by David Robert Mitchell who made the modern horror masterpiece It Follows, this is another metatext in which strange portents and signs abound. Revelling in Hollywoodiana – Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Alfred Hitchcock and Janet Gaynor – and noir and death and the afterlife and the songs that dominate your life and who may or may not have written them, this seems to be an exploration of the obsessions of Gen X. It’s an interesting film to have come out in the same year as Tarantino’s Hollywood mythic valentine Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood and it covers some of the same tropes that have decorated that auteur’s past narratives with a postmodern approach that is summed up in one line: An entire generation of men obsessed with codes and video games and space aliens. The messages in the fetishised songs and cereal box toys and movies are all pointing to a massive conspiracy in communication diverting people from their own meaninglessness, symbolised in the disappearance of the billionaire which has to do with a different idea of the afterlife available only to the very rich. Sam’s quest (and it is a quest – he’s literally led by an Arthurian type of homeless guy – David Yow from the band The Jesus Lizard – straight out of The Fisher King) is a choose your own adventure affair where he gets led down some blind alleys including prostitution and chess games and even gets sprayed by a skunk which lends his character a very special aroma. The postmodern approach even extends to the sex he has – with Millicent Sevence’s (Callie Hernandez) death being a grotesque parody of the magazine cover that initiated him to masturbation. Sigh. Garfield holds the unfolding cartography together but that’s what actors do – they fill in the missing scenes:  it may not be everyone’s idea of fun to watch Spider Man having graphic sex scenes and doing things to himself but the audience is also being played.  If the objects are diffuse and the message too broad, well, you can make of it what you will. It means whatever you want it to mean (it’s not about burial, it’s about ascension), a spectral fever dream that at the end of the day is a highly sexual story about a guy who wants to make it with the woman across the court yard in his apartment building, no matter how many secret messages or subliminal warnings are in your breakfast or how many Monroe scenes are re-enacted, filmed, photographed or otherwise stored in the minutiae of our obsessive compulsive Nineties brains. So what do you think it all means?

 

There Was a Little Boy (1993) (TVM)

There Was a Little Boy

Hey! She doesn’t want me! Fifteen years after their baby boy was stolen from their apartment, English teacher Julie (Cybill Shepherd) is expecting her second child with wealthy husband Gregg (John Heard). He has never given up on finding Robbie, she accepts his guilt despite it happening on her watch while she was taking a bath. She is teaching in a downtown high school and finds herself forced to deal with a difficult transfer student Jesse (Scott Bairstow) who appears functionally illiterate but is actually gifted and they form an uneasy connection. His own mother Esperanza (Elaine Kagan) is on welfare and ill with a lung condition and they get by with his thieving from the store. When Julie tries to sell off  Robbie’s baby cot, Gregg objects and finds in the base a necklace with a religious medal attached which doesn’t belong to either of them and which they trace to a local Catholic priest who is now gaga and cannot positively identify the owner. However Jesse’s own actions lead Julie in the right direction to find her long-lost son …  I am your worst nightmare:  a politically incorrect teacher who dares to flunk your ass. Adapted by Wesley Bishop from the novel by Claire R. Jacobs, this operates somewhere between Teacher in the Hood and Maternal Melo, The action scenes are well handled, the irony of Jesse’s identity well flagged (it’s not really the point), the trade-off in guilt between husband and wife completely believable, the acting good, and it’s directed by the admirable Mimi Leder who of course proceeded to make those terrific actioners Deep Impact and The Peacemaker before the wheels came off her cinema career for a long time after Pay It Forward. She returned to the fray late last year with the Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic On the Basis of Sex. Hurray for that. And if that doesn’t suffice, how about all those early 90s chintzy couches. I lost a son and a husband. I won’t let that happen again