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 in this flashback within a flashback. Mostly however the issue is 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 amoral 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 with no visible difference between how he looks in 1950 and 1975. 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

Kalifornia (1993)

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What the hell did I know about California? For some people it was still a place of hopes and dreams, a chance to start over. Graduate journalism student Brian Kessler (David Duchovny) has published an article about serial killers that secures an offer for a book deal. He and his girlfriend Carrie Laughlin (Michelle Forbes), an avant garde photographer, decide to relocate to California in hopes of enriching their careers. The two plot their journey from Louisville, Kentucky to Los Angeles,planning to visit infamous murder sites along the way which Carrie can photograph for Brian’s book. Trouble is, they’re short of money so Brian posts a ride-share ad on campus. Psychopathic recent parolee Early Grayce (Brad Pitt) has just lost his job. His parole officer learns of this and comes to the trailer where Early lives with his naïve girlfriend waitress Adele Corners (Juliette Lewis). Early refuses the officer’s offer of a job as a janitor at the university, saying he wants to leave the state, but the officer pressures him into keeping his appointment for the job interview. When Early arrives at the campus, he sees the ride-share ad and calls Brian, who agrees to meet him the following day and the mismatched foursome take off cross-country one hour after Early has murdered his landlord. Carrie has immediate misgivings when she sees the white trash pair and becomes very scared when Early and Brian start drinking together and Brian becomes infatuated with guns … Tell me, big shot, how you gonna write a book about something you know nothing about? It’s a neat concept:  a guy obsessed with serial killers ends up sharing a ride with a serial killer and then becomes inured to the effects of that violent experience when it’s finally him or – him. It’s constructed as though this were the rite of passage for a writer of such true crimes giving him a taste for murder albeit the closing voiceover indicates he has learnt nothing because he feels nothing. So maybe we’re in the realm of unfulfilled masculinity – so much of this narrative is tied into sex and instinct. Perhaps it’s too self-satisfied, perhaps Pitt’s performance as the kinky white trailer trash is too eccentric, Lewis too retarded, Forbes too knowing, Duchovny too withdrawn. These are people whose paths would never ordinarily cross however they’re in a car together having to deal with each other. On the other hand it’s a cool piece of work with a kind of sociocultural commentary about how we are bumping up against people we disagree with on a daily basis, how some elitists have a kind of fascination for the going-nowhere working classes, how pure intellect is rarely a match for feral intuition and how serial killers can attain a celebrity that transcends mere notoriety into a form of acceptability because it is no longer possible to move us in a world where so much is abandoned and empty. It’s no accident that the finale takes place at Dreamland, the old nuclear testing site and fake town on the California-Nevada border. Originally written by Tim Metcalfe with Stephen Levy, this appears to have changed substantially in tone in development. Directed like a stylishly cool breeze by Dominic Sena in his feature debut. I’ll never know why Early Grayce became a killer. I don’t know why any of them did. When I looked into his eyes I felt nothing, nothing

Play It As It Lays (1972)

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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

Chasing Bullitt (2019)

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Without my career there’s nothing else. Movie star Steve McQueen (Andre Brooks) is at a crossroads in his career after he’s had his pet project European racing film Le Mans taken from him by the studio. He owes money, his marriage is in trouble, he doesn’t know if he will hit big with the public again. He appeals to Freddie (Dennis W. Hall) his agent to help him locate the iconic Ford Mustang GT 390 he drove in Bullitt after the studio gifted him with a fake and goes on a road trip where he reflects on his life and the mistakes and relationships that have led him to this point … You’re a movie star. Surely that comes with its own set of burdens. It’s not just a road trip. It never is. It’s a psychological journey. And in the case of McQueen that means traversing the rocky road of his marriage to Neile (Augie), an encounter with Batista (Anthony Dilio) in Cuba back in 1956 and in sessions with his therapist (Ed Zajac) ponders his good fortune at not being slaughtered on Cielo Drive August 8, 1969. (And in this cultural echo chamber of movies we of course think of Damian Lewis’ McQueen unrequited longing for Sharon Tate in Tarantino’s recent Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood). Brooks has occasionally eerie moments embodying the star such is their resemblance, his chats with hitch hiker Sula (Alysha Young) clearly designed to trigger emotional insights; there’s a very amusing exchange with Dustin Hoffman (Jason Slavkin) about the prospects of working together on Papillon; and it all concludes with a final ironic gesture regarding the car he wants to find so badly. It’s not a perfect biopic but it’s better structured than most with an incredible look courtesy of cinematographer Daniel Stilling that harks back to precisely the era it’s set – 1971. It’s a mood piece about a yearning for control. And it’s about the filmmaker’s own nostalgia. I know just how he feels. Is it the truth? Hardly. It takes dramatic licence and still skims the surface. But I’ll take McQueen however I can get him. Written and directed by Joe Eddy. They took the film away from me

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)

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Nobody is flying the plane!  During a massive traffic jam in California caused by reckless  ex-convict (following a tuna factory robbery 15 years earlier) Smiler Grogan (Jimmy Durante), he crashes his car off twisting, mountainous State Highway 74 near Palm Desert. Five motorists stop to help him: dentist Melville Crump (Sid Caesar) and his wife Monica (Edie Adams); furniture mover Lennie Pike (Jonathan Winters); two guys on their way to Las Vegas, Ding Bell (Mickey Rooney) and Benjy Benjamin (Buddy Hackett); and Fresno entrepreneur J. Russell Finch (Milton Berle), his wife Emmeline (Dorothy Provine) and his loud mother-in-law Mrs Marcus (Ethel Merman). Just before he dies kicking a bucket, Grogan tells the men about $350,000 buried in Santa Rosita State Park near the border with Mexico under “… a big W”. The motorists set out across California to find the fortune, unaware that Captain T.G. Culpeper, Chief of Detectives of the Santa Rosita Police Department, has been patiently working on the Smiler Grogan case for years, hoping to someday solve it and retire. When he learns of the crash, he suspects Grogan may have tipped off the passersby, so he has them tracked by various police units. His suspicions are confirmed by their nutty behaviour but he may have ulterior motives for retrieving the loot  …  It’s a nice dream.  Lasted almost five minutes.  Earnest producer/director Stanley Kramer’s film may not in fact be the comedy to end all comedies as it was billed but it has most of the mid-century movie world’s best comic performers (and more besides) involved in incredibly engineered slapstick sequences, marvellously sustained as a lengthy madcap satirical farce, with some of the best colour cinematography you will ever see:  those reds and yellows and blues pop perfectly off the screen in staggering synchrony thanks to astonishing work by Ernest Laszlo. Written by William Rose and Tania Rose, it’s an epic ensemble endeavour with support and guest bits from a vast variety of mostly TV stars like Phil Silvers, Peter Falk, Jerry Lewis, Dick Shawn, Andy Devine, The Three Stooges, Edward Everett Horton and the great Buster Keaton, with Zasu Pitts in her final film,  and some lively dancing by Barrie Chase (screenwriter Borden Chase’s daughter and Robert Towne’s onetime girlfriend, previously married to Hollywood hairdresser Gene Shacove and therefore the inspiration for Shampoo!). We love Terry-Thomas (in a role intended for Peter Sellers, who asked for too much money – ironically) and his comments here about American obsessions provide the caustic witticisms that balance the narrative and characters’ unstoppable drive for money.  Sid Caesar inherited the role intended for the fabulous Ernie Kovacs following his death in a car crash driving home from Milton Berle’s baby shower (again, the irony…). A beautifully constructed gem that shows off California in precisely the way you would wish and after commencing with someone kicking the bucket in a cliffhanger opening, ends on an entirely apposite banana skin. Watching these legendary performers trying to steal scenes is a kick:  make America funny again! Beautifully restored.  Don’t call me baby

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Toy Story 4 (2019)

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It’s time for the next kid. Nine years after Andy has left for college and he’s been separated from Bo Peep (Annie Potts), cowboy Woody (Tom Hanks) helps his new kid Bonnie (Madeline McGraw) when she gets upset at her first day of kindergarten where she makes her new toy Forky (Tony Hale) from a spork.  Forky believes he’s trash but Woody teaches him he’s Bonnie’s friend. When the family goes on an RV road trip and Forky jumps ship, Woody sets out to get him back and they fetch up in a secondhand shop where they get trapped by a doll called Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) who desperately wants a voicebox to nab a human friend and Woody has what she needs.  Her henchmen ventriloquist dolls The Dummies (Steve Purcell) help her. In their quest to reunite Bonnie with Forky, the gang assemble with Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) pressing his own buttons to access his inner voice and Woody is reunited with Bo who’s found a new existence living in the middle of a travelling carnival.  There’s a race against time to make sure Bonnie doesn’t take off before finding her new friend… I am not a toy, I was made for soups, salads, maybe chili, and then the trash. Freedom! We know over a quarter century pretty much everything that toys are thinking about and here the thread of the lost toy narrative continues with Bo having a life as an independent girl, Forky experiencing an existential crisis and Woody seeing that there can be a life beyond the needs of his human child owner. Perhaps the store where most of the action occurs is a limited palette in terms of narrative possibility but there are good in-jokes, real jeopardy, sorrow and lessons. The toys can be scared of other toys too – my goodness those dummies! Bolstered by another set of songs from Randy Newman, this is a bittersweet conclusion to one of cinema’s classic series, but here we have a child who has a stronger emotional bond with a utensil than with the toys purposed for human relationships and two and a half decades of our own responses. Maybe it’s Pixar’s way of saying to us all, Grow Up, as the gang is surplus to most requirements here and the narrative is not unified in the way one has come to expect. Ironically then, beware of leaving early – the credits are worth waiting for as we are deftly pushed away to lead our own off-screen lives. Directed by Josh Cooley from a screenplay by Andrew Stanton and Stephany Bolsom, based on a story by them and Rashida Jones, John Lasseter, Will MacCormack, Valerie LaPointe and Martin Hynes. He’s not lost. Not anymore. To infinity…

La Strada (1954)

La Strada

What a funny face! Are you a woman, really? Or an artichoke? Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina) is a simple-minded young woman whose mother accepts 10,000 lire from brutish itinerant strongman Zampanò (Anthony Quinn) to take her on the road after her older sister Rosa has died doing the same job. He bullies her and she takes up with high-wire performer Il Matto/Fool (Richard Basehart) who is with a travelling circus which she then joins with Zampanò when he finds her. The men’s rivalry culminates in a death … Here we have a piece of chain that is a quarter of an inch thick. It is made of crude iron, stronger than steel. With the simple expansion of my pectoral muscles, or chest, that is, I’ll break the hook.Written by Fellini and Tulio Pinelli with Ennio Flaiano, this is the first of the maestro’s world hits and one of the classics of cinema. It is a tragedy told with immense humanity and vivid melancholy and is a tribute to the performing brilliance of Masina, Fellini’s wife and the inspiration for the central character, a waif of Chaplinesque attractiveness. Much of the film was shot around dawn, imbuing this picaresque of poverty with its unique tone of fatality. This marks a break with the director’s neorealist cinematic roots,  yet it is an unvarnished picture of post-war Italy, a stark contrast with the American Technicolor tourist romcoms being produced on location. However it embraces the vitality and symbolism of the circus and brings a distinctive worldview to global attention. Quinn seems unbearably tough while Basehart does well as a kind of trickster in this allegorical play on the fairytale.  Nino Rota provides the evocative score and the song which is repeated to such urgent effect. A devastating portrait of the destruction of innocence with the overwhelming power of melodrama. Once you lose your eyes, you are finished. If there’s any delicate person in the audience, I would advise him to look away ’cause there could be blood

Green Book (2018)

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Travelling while black.  Dr Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) is a world-class African-American pianist, who lives above Carnegie Hall in NYC and is about to embark on a concert tour starting in Pittsburgh and then taking a hard left to the Deep South in 1962. In need of a driver and protection, Shirley recruits Tony Vallelonga aka Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) a tough-talking bouncer from an Italian-American neighbourhood in the Bronx who needs work while the Copacabana nightclub is closed for renovations. This is the best offer of a job otherwise he’ll be cornered into working for local hoodlums. Despite the stark differences in their origins and outlook, the two men soon develop an unexpected bond while confronting danger in an era of segregation, with Don helping Tony write letters home to his wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini) and Tony displaying a unique approach to the threats and racism they encounter en route … The world’s full of lonely people afraid to make the first move.  Inspired by the real-life experience of Copacabana maître’d Tony Vallelonga and renowned pianist Don Shirley and based on personal letters from Tony to his wife and the Negro Motorist Green Book a guide book for midcentury black people needing safe places to stay, this is a bullet-proof comedy drama. It isn’t just a black and white film:  it takes a half hour for the odd couple to hit the road and Shirley plays with a trio, one of whom is Russian and whom Tony repeatedly mistakes for German – not his favourite nationality after serving in WW2. The opening section principally introduces Tony and his background as a bouncer with a BS radar that irritates people and gets him fired a lot. When we first meet him he’s beating bloody a hood with Mafia connections. The point is that this also examines perceptions of Italian America too, and not just racist attitudes – his are perfectly evident when he trashes two water glasses after black workmen have fixed the kitchen sink for his wife in their rented home.  It’s about how they live and talk and do business and look after each other when they’re out of work and the pressure to take and do favours for gangsters and it’s about what they eat – because this is also a film concerned with food: an array of the stuff that will have you gnawing your hand when you see platefuls of spaghetti and clams and meatballs and pizza. This has a nice corollary when Tony introduces Shirley to the joys of fried chicken. Perhaps there’s an issue for a black audience having this dignified, gifted multi-lingual virtuoso being educated in blackness through take out KFC and music stations on the car radio (he doesn’t recognise Aretha Franklin or any black popular singer – maybe) but it’s done with such warmth and with such a magnificent payoff in the final sequence after Don has taken enough from the Southern racists that only a condescending curmudgeon could get angry. So if I’m not black enough and if I’m not white enough, then tell me, Tony, what am I?  What flips the dramatic situation is when Tony is asked about the origins of his name after they’re pulled over by the police in Alabama.  When he says he’s Italian he’s accused of being a nigger – a common epithet used against Italians – and he reacts by punching out a cop landing both men in the slammer. This is how he reacts to being accused of being black – with violence. It’s the lesson of the film because he urges Don to stand up for himself like he does, but in a nice touch (with the metaphor of their mutual imprisonment in their attitudes intact) it’s Shirley’s connection with Attorney General Bobby Kennedy that proves to be their Get Out of Jail Free card. Sometimes playing for rich white people in Park Avenue apartments and keeping schtum works.  Sometimes. When Don is caught with his pants down in the YMCA with another man, Tony pays off the cops and shrugs it off, because he’s seen it all before in his job at that showbiz mecca, the Copa:  things get complicated, he says and fuhgeddsaboutit. Indeed for a film that wears its heart on its sleeve and declaratively hits hot-button topics about representation of race, sex and class without becoming mired in anything other than common live-and-let-live humanity, it’s an unobjectionable, balanced, remarkable and rather generous piece of work, a prism into the Sixties that throws today’s experiences into relief. Being genius is not enough, it takes courage to change people’s hearts.  The two leads are note-perfect in performances of great scope from a screenplay by director Peter Farrelly, Vallelonga’s son Nick and Brian Hayes Currie. Beautifully shot by Sean Porter, this is scored by Kris Bowers and has some wonderful interpretations of work by jazz greats. Has Mortensen ever been better in this heartwarming story that’s so well told? No wonder it’s awards catnip. Geography isn’t really important

Raw Deal (1948)

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Aka Corkscrew Alley. Waiting. Waiting. All my life I’d been waiting. For Joe. Joe Sullivan (Dennis O’Keefe) has taken the rap for criminal Rick (Raymond Burr) who owes him $50,000 and now double-crosses him into a flawed escape plan from prison.  Joe’s helped by his streetwise girlfriend Pat (Claire Trevor) and his lovelorn legal caseworker Ann (Marsha Hunt) and their competing love for him complicates things as he goes on the lam and the police are on his tail while he plans to board a ship bound for Panama … Close in on him from every side. Don’t give him a chance. Anthony Mann’s post-war noir is of a different variety from most, with a striking tone. The cinematography by John Alton is delicious, capturing the early morning sea fog as it licks the shore rolling in on tides of impending doom, perfectly complementing Claire Trevor’s mournful voiceover. A tragic noir, wonderfully executed with a complex protagonist whose motivations aren’t entirely clear. The love triangle is unexpectedly moving with the differences between the women well delineated although Trevor’s is the stronger part:  Suddenly I saw that every time he kissed me he would be kissing Ann. The story is by Arnold B. Armstrong and Audrey Ashley, and the screenplay is credited to John C. Higgins and Leopold Atlas.  I never asked for anything safe. All I want is just some decency, that’s all

The Last Movie Star (2017)

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I should have stayed a stunt man. Ageing film star Vic Edwards (Burt Reynolds) has to put down his ailing dog. His spirits appear to be lifted by an invitation to the International Nashville Film Festival but he’s only persuaded to go by his friend Sonny (Chevy Chase) who points out that previous recipients of the Festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award were Nicholson, De Niro, Pacino. When Vic boards the plane he’s in coach; his limo is a BMW driven by angry tattooed Goth girl Lil (Ariel Winter); and his first class hotel is a crappy motel. He wants out, especially when the Festival is in a bar with projection on a sheet and Shane (Ellar Coltrane) irritates him by asking on-the-nose questions about his choice of roles which tees off Festival organiser Doug (Clark Duke). After hitting the bottle, then hitting his head, Vic persuades Lil to take him three hours out of town to Knoxville where he goes on a trip through his past … What a shit hole. A riff on the career of Burt Reynolds himself, as the well chosen film inserts illustrate, in which his avatar Edwards appears and comments (as his older incarnation) on the presumptions of youth and the lessons he has learned as age and illness have beset his life, his stardom a thing of the past. An explicitly nostalgic work, in which the trials of ageing are confronted head-on by the only actor who was top of the box office six years straight, with Reynolds’ character (aided by the walking stick he used in real life) taking a tour of his hometown in Tennessee including visiting the house where he grew up and seeing his first wife Claudia (Kathleen Nolan) in an old folks’ home where she’s suffering from Alzheimer’s.  The buddy-road movie genre was something Reynolds helped pioneer and he and Winter wind up being an amusing odd couple, both eventually thawing out and seeing the good in each other as they learn a little about themselves. Adam Rifkin’s film is an unexpected delight, a charming excursion into the problems for a man faced with life after fame and it concludes on something Reynolds himself must have approved for what transpired to be his final screen role – his shit eating grin. Bravo. An audience will forgive a shitty second act if you wow them in Act Three  #MM2200