Wednesday, October 16, 2019

THE IRISHMAN - BFI London Film Festival 2019 - Closing Night Gala

Who killed Jimmy Hoffa? Does anyone care? Martin Scorsese sure does. He spends three and half arse-numbing hours answering who and why. We only put up with this because it's Scorsese. And even then barely just.  If created for theatrical release, then this film is just too long.  It could easily lose twenty minutes of its opening hour and thirty minutes of its closing hour. Once Hoffa's dead, do we really care about his assassin's lonely old age?  I would argue that the indulgence Netflix afforded Scorsese is a hindrance here.  It has allowed him to be baggy where a conventional studio would have demanded a sub-180 minute cut.  Still, this is a Netflix release so I guess people will watch this at home over a few evenings. If so, that's a shame because Scorsese is at the top of his game when it comes to his visual style, choice of music, kinetic editing, and brilliant evocation of mood and era.  This film really does deserve to be seen on a big screen, for all the physical discomfort that arises.

Of course, no-one really cares who killed Jimmy Hoffa anymore.  I don't know many people of my generation who know how powerful he was in 1960s America, or the mystery surrounding his death, let alone those younger than me.  Scorsese's screenwriter Steve Zaillian seems to acknowledge the problem a couple of times in his screenplay, as aged up versions of characters try to explain to younger interlocuters that Hoffa was the second most powerful man behind the President - a powerful Union leader who could make or break a political campaign, and whose multi-billion pension fund could and did bankroll the mafia. He disappeared in 1975.  Everyone acknowledges it was a mafia hit.  You don't threaten mafia funding and survive. But the precise facts around who did the job remain unsolved. The Feds have their suspicions. But we'll never know. This film, however, posits a theory based on the late-in-life confession of long-term mafia hitman Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran.

And so this film tells us the story of The Irishman, beginning with not one but two framing devices. The outer device shows us Sheeran (an aged up Robert de Niro) narrating his sins to what we'll later find out is a Catholic priest - his sole visitor in a nursing home, given that Sheeran has alienated his family.  This reminded me a bit of AMADEUS - having the murderer confess, but not particularly seek atonement, to murdering a man who was purportedly his friend.  Because Sheeran wasn't just a mob hitman - he was also sent by the mob to be Hoffa's protection. Their relationship was one of trust and intimacy, even sleeping in twin beds like Burt and Ernie. It certainly makes the killing emotionally brutal.

The framing device within the framing device is watching Sheeran on a road-trip from Philly to Detroit with his mentor, mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), and their wives. This is meant to be a trip to a wedding, but it becomes apparent in the final third of the film that Bufalino is going to call on Sheeran's higher loyalty to him than to Hoffa, by making him kill Hoffa personally. "I have to put you in this" he says.  

And then finally, we get to the meat of the film, which is a linear re-telling of Sheeran's story from the time he met Bufalino to his life in the nursing home. He starts of as a truck driver who steals for the mafiosi, then starts driving for them, then "painting walls" aka murdering people, and providing protection for Hoffa. The fact that Sheeran even makes it to the nursing home is already a gag, as time and again, we see darkly humorous subtitles telling us how various mafiosi were brutally killed shortly after the action we're witnessing. Sheeran is literally the last man standing.

The resulting story is - as I said - baggy in its first and especially final hour - but when it's solidly in the meat of its 1960s and 1970s storyline it's as pacy and compelling and stunningly put together as anything Scorsese has ever done.  The way in which he frames a shot, or explicitly moves a lens as if its our eye panning a room, or jump cuts from a violent shot to a stylish lounge scene - the way in which he uses incidental music - it's just another league from the other films at this festival, or on release, period.  The performances are also tremendous, and I have to say the subtle use of CGI de-ageing tech is an absolute success.

For me, the star of the show is Joe Pesci. His performance is so quiet, so powerful, so menacing, and so controlled.  He can condemn a man to death with the slightest, barely noticeable, nod of his head. It's also interesting to compare him with Harvey Keitel as the even more powerful Angelo Bruno. He barely says a word in the entire movie. The two characters are quiet, understated and petrifying.  Contrast this with Al Pacino's Jimmy Hoffa - perfect casting as Hoffa needs to be (at times) bombastic, to contrast with the mafiosi's quiet menace. Hoffa's problem is a complete lack of self-awareness. Even when they're all turning on him, he just doesn't get it. He still obsesses over "my union".  He doesn't understand he sold it to the mafia years prior.  But this isn't one of those pastiche Pacino large performance. Sure, Hoffa has elements of that. But he can also be quiet and fragile. There's also a lovely contrast between Hoffa, who's downfall is that he's so emotional, seeing the benefits of that in a beautiful family life. He's even close to Sheeran's daughter Peggy (lovely facial acting in an almost wordless and thankless role).  By contrast, Peggy instinctively withdraws from her father and Bufalino.  They are left alone.  As for De Niro, his performance is strong, as we come to expect, but his character is in some ways the least interesting of the "big three". I would nominate Pesci for the awards, every time.

In smaller roles, and I really can't state this highly enough, can we get some awards love for Stephen Graham as the dangerously explosive mafiosi Tony Pro?  There are a couple of scenes where he has to go toe to toe with Pacino's Hoffa at his most powerful and domineering and my god, Graham's Tony Pro gives as good as he gets.  Graham is in no way outclassed by Pacino, and Pacino is pretty fucking classy.  Best Supporting Actor? No doubt.

THE IRISHMAN is rated R and has a running time of 209 minutes. The movie played New York and London 2019. It opens in cinemas on limited release on November 1st in the USA and November 8th in the UK, and will be released globally on Netflix on November 27th.

JUDY & PUNCH - BFI London Film Festival 2019 - Day Twelve

Debut writer-director has created something really wonderful in her strange fable JUDY & PUNCH. It's set in a vaguely medieval world but reminded me a bit of Neil Gaiman in its ability to comment on contemporary issues through the lens of fantasy.  I loved its wit, its intelligence, and its ultimately rather wonderful message about the wisdom of women and outsiders.

The film stars Mia Wasikowska (ALICE IN WONDERLAND) and Damon Herriman (ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD) as the eponymous puppeteers, whose theatrical show is the deeply politically incorrect one from our youth. The puppet Punch beats up his wife Judy, and the policeman who comes to break things up, and the dog who tries to steal his sausages.  Charming! And amazing that this was still considered acceptable children's entertainment in my childhood. The plot turns on Punch being violent in real life too, and apparently murdering his wife in a rage. But she's rescued by outlaws who turn out to be just a bunch of skilled people who caught the suspicion and paranoia of the bigoted villagers. 

It's truly wonderful seeing the submissive but talented Judy come into her own and discover her power as the film progresses. It's also wonderful to see Punch portrayed with empathy if not excuses. He's a deeply frustrated man and an alcoholic. As the film progresses one sense that he actually does love Judy - just not as much as he loves himself.  And in the wider depiction of the village, there's something darkly funny but also desperately sad about how it seems to get a certain kind of political madness that has infected our times.

The beauty of this film is that it never lets the message overwhelm the characters and the plot.  This isn't an allegory but a character-led, moving story.  Moreover, it features a really powerful performance by Herriman which at times evokes Heath Ledger's Joker. 

JUDY & PUNCH has a running time of 105 minutes. The film played Sundance, Sitges and London 2019.  It will be released in the UK on November 15th. 

Sunday, October 13, 2019

A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD - BFI London Film Festival 2019 - Day Eleven

I don't think Marielle Heller's A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBOURHOOD is a well-made film.  The script, from Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, doesn't seem to know how to get the movie started.  It feels like we get two or three starts.  And then it's full of cliches - like a hard-boiled news editor that kicks her star writer's self-pity with angry curses.  The biggest cliche of all is the cynical broken man (journalist Lloyd Vogel) being healed by a manic pixelates dream girl, sorry a hooker with a heart of gold, sorry, a beloved children's TV show host!  Everything else about the film is mediocre.  The cinematography is weak - look at the night shots outside of the hospital that just aren't lit properly.    There's nothing visually imaginative about the film in terms of framing or sound design. Honestly, the only vaguely interesting things are the animated versions of New York and Pittsburgh inspired by the Mr Rogers show.

For all that, this is a strangely effective film.  Rather than giving us a conventional biopic of Mr Rogers (as in the fantastic documentary WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR) what we are shown is the impact Mr Rogers had on people.  Lloyd Vogel is thus a stand-in for us, the post-modern cynical audience.  Vogel tries to find an angle on Mr Rogers but there isn't one to be found. He really is a very patient, kind, caring, thoughtful man.  He's also impervious to cynicism. And as we see him repair Lloyd's broken relationship with his father, we too ponder those imperfect and painful relationships of our own, and long for the wisdom and care of Mr Rogers in our own lives.  It's no surprise that I cried at this film, and that the three people I watched it with also cried. None of knew Mr Rogers from our own British childhoods, but his message of compassion, kindness and care were meaningful.

To that end, A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD is almost the inverse of Pablo Larrain's EMA.  The latter was a beautifully made film about an awful person that left me cold. The former is a mediocre film about at outstanding character that moved me deeply.

A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD has a running time of 107 minutes. It played Toronto and London 2019. It will be released in the USA on November 22nd and in the UK on December 6th. 

TWO OF US - BFI London Film Festival 2019 - Day Eleven

TWO OF US isn't the showiest or flashiest film in this year's London Film Festival but is has to be one of the most beautifully acted, cleverly constructed and deeply moving. It's all the more impressive as it's director Filippo Meneghetti debut feature, and displays a lot of subtle style. Take for example his use of camera shots through peepholes in doors - or the way in which he uses a subtle flashback/dream sequence at the start - or the sound design around an overheating frying pan as a woman lies in a stroke on the floor, hidden from view. This is a confident director who knows how to frame a shot and stage a scene. 

The film centres of Madeleine and Nina, two old women who have been in love and together for 20 years. The only problem is that Madeleine cannot find the courage to tell her grown children, especially the son who blames her for not loving his father enough. So the women maintain two apartments, across the hallway from each other.  One is empty, and one is their home.  But the kids think that Nina is just their mother's neighbour and friend. 

This charade is blown out of the water when Madeleine has a stroke, and is then brought home with a carer. She slowly restores mobility but cannot speak.  Poor Nina finds herself cut out of Madeleine's life, and indeed her home.  Increasingly frustrated she tries everything she can to insinuate herself back into Mado's life, and when the kids suspect, to track down Mado in her nursing home.  Even more moving, we see the strength of love, and how a severely restricted Mado struggles to physically find Nina and be with the woman she loves.

The resulting film is wonderfully observed and deeply affecting. I absolutely believed in the strength of Mado and Nina's love, and in the uncomprehending anger of the children. Martine Chevallier is superb as Mado but this is really  Barbara Sukowa’s film. Her Nina can be tender, angry, clever, defeated - but always, always in love.  There's nothing more beautiful and sympathetic than that. 

TWO OF US has a running time of 95 minutes.  The film played Toronto and London 2019.  It does not yet have a commercial release date. 

EMA - BFI London Film Festival 2019 - Day Eleven

EMA is the most frustrating movie I've seen in a long time. As directed by Pablo Larrain (JACKIE), photographed by Sergio Armstrong (THE CLUB) and scored by Nicolas Jaar, this is a film of rare beauty and vitality.   The visuals are arresting, the dance scenes captivating.  For much of the film we are trained on Ema's face at the centre of the screen, contemplative, confronting.  This film looks and feels like a masterpiece.  And for its first hour I was convinced it was going to be.  Something has gone horribly wrong. The boy, Polo, that Ema and her husband (Gael GarcĂ­a Bernal) adopted somehow set a fire on her sister, and they ended up sending him back.  Each parent is full of recrimination and they say truly brutal things to each other. Ema is also subject to outright prejudice and bullying from her work colleagues. There's something about a "failed" mother that provokes judgmental attitudes in people beyond the criticism that a father faces.  Up until this point I was fully on Ema's side. The problem is that as the movie progresses, without spoiling anything, we discover that Ema is a narcissistic, childish, reckless woman.  She didn't provoke feelings of sympathy in me but feelings of judgment, horror and fear.  All the matters is what she feels and needs - no matter how many adults or children are manipulated and endangered in the process.  And the ending of the film, which honestly is so absurd, felt as though it was rewarding this behaviour.  So you get to the end of the film and think, what a waste of so much talent and creative brilliance on a subject as absurd, unsympathetic and frankly bizarre as this. 

EMA has a running time of 102 minutes. The film played Venice, Toronto and London. It does not yet have a commercial release date. 

Friday, October 11, 2019

THE STREET - BFI London Film Festival 2019

THE STREET is a fascinating but half-examined documentary about the gentrification of East London, and the impact this has on the local low-income community. The word "community" is a deeply charged one here. Many of the interviewees who live or work on Hoxton Street clearly see their community as being "English" - Caucasian, multi-generational East-end residents. They don't hold with "poncy" foreign food or vendors who "can't speak English properly". This is transparently racist. Later in the documentary, we are given half an explanation of why this strength of feeling might exist: with social housing in such short supply, and homelessness on the rise, being held back in a queue for housing because a newly arrived immigrant family has taken in causes "strong feelings".

The good news is that the director, Zed Nelson, does not blame immigrants - indeed at many points he shows them to be contributing to the local economy and actively helping the community by organising soup kitchens. Rather, he gives us three villains of the piece - the Conservative government's austerity policies that cut welfare and increased homelessness; the property developers converting derelict existing buildings into luxury flats; and the seemingly oblivious Nathan-Barley-esque invading trust-fund hipsters. I have no problem with Nelson focusing on these groups, although the picture is more complex, as his own documentary shows. It turns out that the art gallery previously shown as pretentious employed a dynamic young British-African woman called Khadija who died tragically in the Grenfell fire. At her memorial service we see a new kind of community gather, no less heartfelt or valid than the old Hoxton community.

My only issue with this doc was its reluctant to call out LOCAL and therefore Labour Party politicians for allowing rampant re-development. As much as it might be easy for progressive film-makers to finger a Tory government, it's the local government that determines local planning consents and negotiates the proportion of any new development that is social and affordable housing. The dirty secret that isn't brought to light is that the left-wing council in Hackney WANTS gentrification because it increases the tax base and reduces the welfare bill.

THE STREET has a running time of 94 minutes.  It is playing at the BFI London Film Festival 2019 and does not yet have a commercial release date.