The Last Waltz (1978)

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There’s not much really left that you can take from the road.  Criticised at the time for its apparent focus on (co-producer) Robbie Robertson, this is a record of Canadian-American rock group The Band’s farewell concert at promoter Bill Graham’s Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco on 25th November 1976, the Thanksgiving holiday.  It marked 17 years since they had started out as the backing band for rockabilly cult hero Ronnie Hawkins and then toured with Bob Dylan. Filmed by Martin Scorsese, the documentary intersperses his interviews and frank exchanges about their history, influences and life on the road with Robertson and fellow group members Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel. They perform standalone songs and others with guest artists Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Ringo Starr, Dr John and Muddy Waters, with a standout performance by Emmy Lou Harris. A long but worthwhile souvenir (if rather manipulated, by some accounts) of a time that seems long past with riveting and charismatic musicians giving their all. There are plenty of singalong opportunities in a production designed by Boris Leven against a backdrop of a recent opera set and it’s beautifully shot by a phalanx of cinematographers led by Michael Chapman with Laszlo Kovacs and Vilmos Zigmond. From a treatment by Mardik Martin. It started as a concert. It became a celebration

The Irishman (2019)

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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

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)

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I could lay under you, eat fried chicken and do a crossword puzzle at the same time; that’s how much you bother me. When her abusive husband dies, single mom Alice (Ellen Burstyn) and her wiseass 12-year old son, Tommy (Alfred Lutter) leave their small New Mexico town of Socorro for California, where Alice hopes to make it as a singer despite not being particularly good.  She dreams of returning to Monterey where she grew up. Money problems force them to settle in Tucson, Arizona instead, where Alice takes a job as waitress in a small diner owned by Mel (Vic Tayback). She intends to stay there long enough to make the money needed to head back out on the road, but her plans change when she begins to fall for David, a rancher (Kris Kristofferson). Tommy befriends Audrey (Jodie Foster), a slightly older girl who encourages bad behaviour and whose own mother is a prostitute.  When David quarrels with Tommy, Alice leaves him until they come crawling back to one another …  Martin Scorsese (handpicked by Burstyn) entered mainstream Hollywood with this genre piece, a woman’s picture written by Robert Getchell (who died 2017) that announces itself with a parodic rose-tinted dream sequence and titles on crushed satin, 1930s-style. But it’s a woman’s picture with an underlying and sometimes overt threat of violence, despite its sunsplashed settings. So we travel with Alice as she makes her way through life as an adult who has it tough but still dreams of being what she wanted as a small child, reality notwithstanding, lurching from one bad relationship to another in the American Southwest. As this 35-year old woman’s life is unpicked, sometimes with humour and sometimes with pain, the crushing of her ambitions is hard to watch even as she maintains a certain optimism necessary just to make it through her day.  Making the decision to settle for less is something she works on every day. Burstyn’s performance is nuanced and moving, but she is matched by Lutter as her bratty son (who seems more like an argumentative friend) and Foster as his troublesome friend, and particularly by Ladd as Flo the fellow waitress with whom Alice shares home truths. Burstyn won the Academy Award, Ladd was nominated, and Getchell lost out in the Best Screenplay category to Robert Towne for Chinatown. Scorsese was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes. That’s how good a year this was for movies.

GoodFellas (1990)

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As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster. Martin Scorsese’s astonishing portrait of Sicilian-Irish Henry Hill’s 25 year rise through the ranks of Italian-American hoodlums – and his eventual fall – is re-released this month and it still exerts a visceral thrill. Between Coppola and Scorsese we have a reference book on this topic and so many of the tropes and lingo of this subculture are common parlance thanks to them. Nicholas  Pileggi adapted his book Wiseguy (with Scorsese) and with an exegesis on true crime and punishment, violence,  family, honour and dishonour, cooking, drugs and horrible taste,  it has a panoramic sweep we pretty much take for granted. Not for nothing did some of the cast become mainstays of The Sopranos, which wouldn’t exist without this. However it is not the sociological examination we think it was:  it’s a film of no particular depth or self-knowledge, not if we’re depending on Henry’s voiceover. Instead it’s a stylish compendium of cinematic vocabulary, with flourishes influenced by everyone from Anger to Visconti, boasting a particularly nice tribute to The Great Train Robbery in the closing moments. And there are a lot of great, queasy moments here, with gore to spare:  Joe Pesci has the lion’s share as the psychopath Tommy DeVito; Paul Sorvino as the main guy, Paulie Cicero;  and Catherine Scorsese has some nice bits as Tommy’s mom, a keen amateur painter; De Niro is good as Jimmy Conway, the other Sicilian-Irish guy who can never be truly Mafia; Lorraine Bracco is superb as the whining Jewish wife who develops a taste for cocaine; and Ray Liotta could never be better than here, even if he’ll never be a made man. A funny and scarifying tour de force of surfaces, textures and moviemaking.

Silence (2016)

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The biggest news about the latest Martin Scorsese epic is how it’s been shut out of the awards lists, thus far at least. And it’s easy to see why. No guns, no gangsters. Plus in this minority-appeasing year it’s a film about white Christians defending their faith against mindlessness (think about where you might find that analogy at present even if it’s been Scorsese’s passion project for decades). He and Jay Cocks adapted Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel and in terms of the director’s oeuvre it is most assuredly in the ‘one for me’ category. Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver are the Portuguese Jesuits who get smuggled into seventeenth-century Japan to find their missing mentor, priest Liam Neeson, whose eight-year old letter detailing the torture of his fellow believers at the hands of Buddhist Inquisitor (Issey Ogata) leads them to uncover hidden communities of Christians. Their presence elicits attention and villagers suffer. Garfield is taken in several times by Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka) who has taken them to the country and eventually betrays him repeatedly while constantly pleading for forgiveness in confession. It’s grim stuff and the analogy with episodes of Christ’s own suffering is made several times. Garfield is eventually forced to watch others’ torture and the film then clarifies its several narrative strands, even while posing some problems of a meta cinematic nature:  you can’t help but be reminded of Monty Python, especially as the Jap inquisitor has a high-pitched voice and Bugs Bunny teeth;  Kichijiro is clearly a folkloric trickster;  Garfield looks into water and sees both himself and Christ, indicating that faith is often a matter of extreme narcissism. And then there’s the issue of Neeson’s reappearance in garb we know he wore in Star Wars. But given the long running time, it’s nice to be able to sigh and laugh in recognition occasionally and be glad you’re not there amid this epic of endurance. Driver’s deterioration does not inspire the same humorous recognition:  it is utterly shocking. And these are the postmodern ideas that make this work, an overlay of relief from the relentless series of questions:  what is faith? Is it about God and love or is it about rosary beads and crucifixes? Is it purely about ego? (One recalls the old saw that if you replace the word ‘God’ with ‘I’ you get closer to what fanatics and believers are really about – themselves – and we all know plenty of those, don’t we. The daily churchgoers and penitents who are rifling through your pockets and avoiding paying taxes!) What is religion for? Is it a form of delusion devoid of relevance to real life? Is the Son of God more important than the Sun of God? This ideological tussle is all played out as Garfield is repeatedly taken through crowds of Japs attacking him and having the inquisitor play mind games of persuasion and then terror that take you right up to the twentieth century and ideas of psychology and marketing and war (and you’ll also remember that Shinto Buddhism was the motive force behind what the Japs did in WW2.) Ultimately, this is a work of monumental significance. However there are pacing problems and after Kundun et al one expected a more beautiful photographic immersion in this spiritual odyssey. And there are issues with the depth of the writing, reflected in Garfield’s performance which seems too simplified at times. But I don’t see how a film of philosophical dimensions and thoughtfulness will receive an award since it goes against everything that is current and it’s clear that the gifted Garfield will not be in line for an Oscar for Acting While Black. (This, too, shall pass.) A tough film for true movie believers. Apostasise Now?