It’s rare but not unheard of for a director to win the Best Picture Oscar with their first movie. The last time it happened was in 1999 when Sam Mendes won Best Director for his first feature film American Beauty. This had happened five times before but the previous directors who won on their first time all got to where they were in idiosyncratic ways whether they were actors turned directors like Robert Redford and Kevin Costner, or choreographers who managed to get co-director credit like Jerome Robbins, or people with long television careers like James L. Brooks or Delbert Mann. But Sam Mendes really did seem like an overnight success story. Of course he wasn’t, he had actually had a decade of stage direction experience under his belt before that movie came along but in many ways that only complicates the narrative. A stage background would seem to suggest a career of making talky actor-driven cinema but his movies are usually at their best when they seem like visual extravaganzas, if there’s any common linkage in his career it’s the presence of major cinematographers like Conrad Hall and Roger Deakins. This perhaps culminated in his work on the James Bond film Skyfall and it would seem that he’s going to be something of an action movie director going forward and now he’s put that to the test with the highly visual World War I film 1917.
As the title would imply this movie is set in 1917 and during the height of the First World War. It starts with a pair of common soldiers named Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) resting by a tree when they’re unexpectedly called to a meeting with General Erinmore (Colin Firth) who gives them an urgent mission. Erinmore tells them that the Germans have recently made a tactical retreat that the a colonel has misinterpreted as a regular retreat and is planning an all-out attack. Erinmore knows this is a trap because he has access to some aerial reconnaissance but the Germans have cut phone lines and he has no way of communicating this. As such they’re tasking Blake and Schofield to run across No Man’s Land and through a few towns to reach the area this is happening and deliver a letter calling off the offensive, if they fail the whole division of 1600 men could be lost, including Blake’s older brother, who is a lieutenant in that division.
In the last couple of months the film world has been mired in debate over what seemed to me to be a fairly innocuous thing that Martin Scorsese said in an interview about the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’m mostly on Scorsese’s side in this but one thing about his statement that does stand out to me as a little odd comes when he compares them to “theme parks” rather than cinema. I sort of get what he’s trying to say there, but when you look at those MCU films are much more traditional in their construction than that suggests. In-between the CGI filled action scenes they have plenty of traditional exposition and draw some pretty tried and true filmmaking techniques. A movie that might arguably be closer to a rollercoaster from this decade might be George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road. That was a movie where the characters are basically going from point A to point B, and then back to point A, while encountering all sorts of strange sights and taking part in all sorts of action sequences along the way. But a movie that takes that “film as roller-coaster” dynamic to even more of an extreme might be Alfonso Cuarón Gravity, which kept character interaction to a minimum and almost took place in real-time as it followed Sandra Bullock as she bounced around space and experienced all sorts of exciting adventures in her quest for survival.
I don’t make these comparisons to be insulting, those two movies are pretty great, and their rollercoaster-like formats mostly just make them feel like something bigger and more experimental than most action movies. Of course I bring this up because I think 1917 would be another film that fits in with this format and in some ways it takes it to the next level by being filmed in a way that gives the illusion that the film consists entirely of a single elongated shot in the mold of other “single-shot” films like Victoria or Russian Ark. Obviously this was accomplished with special effects and invisible cuts like Birdman was, especially given that it isn’t in real time and given the sheer volume of wild things that happen over the course of this “shot,” but that doesn’t diminish the vision per se. Once you know about that technique, know the premise, and understand that this is meant to be an “experience” as much as a film you probably have a pretty good idea how the film plays out. You don’t really know much about these guys outside of their general personalities and levels of determination, by and large the movie is about what they do rather than who they are and over the course of their travel they experience all sorts of WWI dangers. That said the film isn’t all action and the movie does take its foot off the accelerator a few more times than I expected it to, maybe too many times. Some moments that are meant to feel like oases of tranquility in the midst of all the action end up feeling less like escapes simply because of how many of them there are.
The real question is whether turning World War I into an “experience” was an idea that was in good taste to begin with. The experience being depicted here is not very representative of most soldiers’ experience during that war, which is a conflict that generally precluded acts of individual daring. For most soldiers that war was entirely about being stuck in awful muddy trenches as artillery exploded around them at all hours before they choked to death on mustard gas or got picked off from dozens of yards away by unseen enemies, that is if they didn’t get stricken with dysentery or trench-foot first and most fiction about the war has generally reflected this, it’s probably the least glamorized war ever fought. I wouldn’t say that 1917 glamorizes the war, it certainly has its fair share of nasty imagery to make it clear that war is supposed to be hell, but there is a focus on individual heroism here that kind of clashes with the usual narrative in a way that leaves me a little wary. Then again, there’s a pretty good argument to be made that setting a semi-adventure movie in the midst of one of the “good” wars like World War 2 is every bit as questionable and I don’t bat an eye at those, but there was something to said for leaving “the great war” as a symbol for human folly and waste rather than bravery. But it you look past that this is most definitely a cinematic accomplishment even if the film is a bit hollow beneath the surface. It’s a movie that is exactly what it is, and if you get on board with that it’s a pretty thrilling experience that shouldn’t be missed.
**** out of Five
Warning: Review Contains Spoilers
Though it has seemingly everything going for it, The Irishman oddly hasn’t really been one of the movies I’ve really been anticipating this year. The mere fact that it’s a Martin Scorsese film should have been enough to make me excited for it, the guy is as good as he’s ever been these days and is probably the world’s best living filmmaker. The fact that this film has him re-uniting with Robert De Niro for the first time since 1995 alone should have made it the film event of the year. Add to that the fact that Scorsese is also working with Al Pacino for the first time ever and that Joe Pesci basically came out of retirement for the movie should have moved it into the stratosphere of excitement. So why haven’t I been outlandishly excited for this thing? Well, part of it is that on paper it just seemed too good to be true. All too often when the pedigree of something sounds that great on paper the final film doesn’t quite pan out and it’s best to keep your expectations in check. Also something about Scorsese going back to the gangster movie well had me worried this could be a very commercial play intended to make up for the failure of Silence at the box office. Then of course there’s the Netflix of it all. But the film is finally here now and it’s a pretty heavy piece of work to wade into.
The film is an adaptation of a confessional memoir called “I Heard You Paint Houses” that was published shortly after the death of Frank Sheeran, a former Teamster official with likely ties to organized crime. In the book Sheeran takes credit for having perpetrated a number of high profile murders for the mafia including having played a role in the death of Jimmy Hoffa. The veracity of this book has been widely questioned and it’s likely because of this that the film doesn’t have much in the way of “based on a true story” title cards and much of the film is framed by shots of Sheeran (Robert De Niro) late in life recounting his story to some unnamed person off screen. From there there’s a sort of “frame story within a frame story” of he and his associate Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) are going on a road trip in 1975 with their wives to Detroit ostensibly to attend a wedding but actually to use that wedding as cover to take care of some illegal business. We come back to that road trip from time to time in the film and it seems oddly somber and ominous. From there we flash back even further to the 50s and follow the chronology of what brought Sheeran to that point, namely his exploits as a hitman for the mob and the Teamster ties that would make him a close confidant of Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).
As I mentioned before, it’s not overly clear whether there’s any truth to Sheeran’s account of things. From what I’ve read he was indeed a teamster official and friend of Jimmy Hoffa with mob ties, but there almost no evidence outside of his own accounts that he was ever the triggerman for any murders and his accounts contradict the conventional wisdom about a number of the murders he was involved with. There’s also a bit of a conspiracy theory aspect to his recollection of 20th century history which puts the mafia at the center of certain events including the Bay of Pigs Invasion and possibly even the Kennedy assassination and that makes me increasingly suspicious that all of this is just the rambling of an old man, but parsing the reality of it all is probably besides the point. Martin Scorsese isn’t Oliver Stone and I’m pretty sure that he was primarily attracted to this material for its dramatic potential rather than as a history text and it’s probably best just to look at it as a work of fiction.
If you’ve heard anything about this film in the press you’ve probably heard that it has become a rather expensive production because it employs some high tech de-aging technology to allow the film’s senior citizen cast to portray their characters at various different ages in this film that’s set over the course of this decades spanning tale. I was skeptical about this but I think the technology works pretty damn well. Granted the film never really needs to make them look much younger than middle age, which really would have been a challenge given that De Niro kind of gained some weight in the 80s and it probably wouldn’t have worked to try to make him look like he did when he was really young, but for what’s needed here the technology mostly delivers to the point where you don’t really think about it much. Of course this would seem to be a rather extravagant expense but I mostly think it’s necessary. This movie is all about following characters over the course of years and years and seeing their decisions build on them over the course of time. To simply cast various actors of various ages would have made for a painful disconnect between the various time periods being covered.
Additionally, I think the film gains a lot by having this dream team of mob actors in its cast even if they aren’t 100% age appropriate for their roles for much of the film’s running time. Much the way Unforgiven stands as a sort of requiem for the film western this seems to be a sort of definitive end to the gangster picture, or at least the generation of gangster picture that Scorsese and Coppola ushered in back in the 70s. Comparisons will of course be made to Goodfellas and Casino and not without reason. This is obvious yet another movie where a 20th Century mobster recounts his life of crime through voiceover, but there are some pretty key differences as well. For one thing, those movies are a lot more interested in what their characters find seductive about “the life” before their eventual downfall. There isn’t a lot of that here; Sheeran is obviously being paid for his work but he isn’t living a life of immense wealth like Ace Rothstein and he isn’t getting into the Copacabana through the back like Henry Hill. Sheeran also doesn’t seem terribly interested in his family as a reason to be living like this. There’s maybe a little bit of that early on but mostly he just ends up pushing them away though his general cold bloodedness.
Instead Sheeran seems to be doing what he’s doing out of sheer blind loyalty for the most part. There’s a flashback early on (technically a flashback, within a flashback, within a flashback) to Sheeran executing German soldiers during the war when given vague orders to do so and that kind of mirrors what he ends up doing in organized crime as well: blindly following orders without second-guessing whether what he’s doing is a war crime/mortal sin. When he does get hired to “paint houses” he carries out his assignments with a sort of military efficiency and lacks any sort of remorse or hesitation. The dude is a psycho. I suppose the characters in Scorsese’s other mob movies are also psychos in their own ways but they at least weren’t hitmen so much as people who occasionally needed to have people wacked in order to keep their own hustles going and you get the impression that they’d generally rather not have to do that. But this guy? You get the impression that if Russell Bufalino told him to kill his own mother he’d do it. In this sense the movie is almost less like Goodfellas or Casino and more like Raging Bull in that it’s a portrait of a really complicated and hard to relate to character who ends up really losing everything that ostensibly mattered to him out of his life but for opposite reasons: La Motta was too impulsive and wild while Sheeran was too cold and methodical.
There are other key differences between this and Scorsese’s earlier work. For one thing, Joe Pesci is a lot different here than he has been in the past. In Goodfellas and Casino he was practically playing the same character: a violent wildcard who kind of screws everything up. Here he’s playing a much more rational and in control figure and he isn’t leaning on his usual persona in the film. Al Pacino on the other hand kind of is leaning on the kind of acting we’re pretty used to from him, and that does fit the character to some extent but I would say that if there’s a weakness to be found in the film it might be Hoffa. The infamous Teamster leader is a guy who they easily could been the center of his own film, and has, and the challenges of doing his story justice after he enters the film an hour in are probably a big part of why the film has such a long running time. Hoffa’s eventual death is clearly viewed by the film as a sort of Greek tragedy in which a hero is brought down by his own hubris but if we’re supposed to have any particular sympathy for Hoffa I wasn’t really feeling it. If anything the film lays out a pretty good case that Hoffa kind of had it coming both within the morality of the underworld (dude was not respectful) and within the morality of society (he was legitimately corrupt and needed a “house painter” on the payroll) and the guy seemed to have been given every warning and chance to make things right which he flushed out of sheer pigheadedness.
The larger role of Hoffa’s demise within the film is to act as a sort of wakeup call for Sheeran, the moment that finally breaks through this hitman’s sociopathic resolve and leaves him riddled with regrets later in life, and it’s effective at doing that but there is something rather odd about a movie whose protagonist’s great revelation is simply the achievement of having gained some fraction of the empathy that normal people have without trying. But then maybe that’s the point, that these gangsters that we’ve been glamourizing for decades are pathetic and cold hearted people who are doomed to either early deaths, long prison sentences, or to die alone and friendless. It’s almost like a return to the message from the message from the 1930s gangster movies that started the whole genre, but obviously a bit more artfully conveyed than it was in those movies (which were code-mandated to end with the gangster protagonists being gunned down or executed at the end), and it was obviously on some level the message of The Godfather films on some level. I do wonder if Scorsese feels that this movie contradicts the tone of his own earlier gangster movies, which also certainly didn’t support the gangster lifestyle but were a bit more subtle in their messaging and were more interested in showing the push and pull of this lifestyle being intoxicating and being horrifying. I think I might prefer that approach more overall, but I can also understand the instinct of an artist late in life to stop and make one hundred percent sure people knows what he really thinks.
****1/2 out of Five
I’m going to keep this one pretty short because talking about this movie at any length without spoilers would probably be a pain in the ass, though I’m not sure I have much to add by spoiling it either. This is not really a movie that was made to be analyzed so much as experienced. The film is a modern take on the drawing room mystery from writer/director Rian Johnson, who has become a rather polarizing figure after the release of his Star Wars film The Last Jedi. I wasn’t one of that film’s fans and had never really been won over by his previous films either; the guy is certainly a skilled technical filmmaker but he has a certain attitude and sense of humor that irks me. He’s part of a post Joss Whedon generation of filmmakers who embrace a certain brand of snark and cynicism and who seem to make movies that riff on cinematic conventions like they’re above it all. To some extent that’s still the problem here, but before we get into that let’s focus on the positive: the mystery at the center of this movie is very well constructed. I won’t get into too many details on this but the movie does a fairly clever thing where it reveals things about the central murder earlier than you expect and sort of adjusts what you view as the film’s central question. So there’s a sturdy skeleton holding the movie together but I’m a bit more mixed about how Johnson chooses to flesh things out from there. Much of the film is over the top, and to some extent it should be as a slightly heightened tone is necessary in order to make audiences go along with some of the film’s more outlandish plot twists but some of these quirks annoyed me more than they charmed me. In particular I really did not like Daniel Craig’s character or the ludicrous Southern accent he adopts. I also thought that a character trait involving honestly through regurgitation was pretty stupid and other elements like the décor of the murder victim’s wacky house didn’t really work for me. That said, some of Johnson’s jokes do land better than that and I don’t want to suggest that any of this was enough to completely wreck the movie for me as I did ultimately enjoy it quite a bit for what it does right and I suspect I’ll be in the minority about the bits I didn’t.
*** out of Five
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood(11/25/2019)
You know those magazine articles that are meant to be profiles of famous people but instead of just printing the Q and A from whatever interview was conducted for it the writer instead decides to pad the thing out by describing every detail of their meeting with said actual interesting person along with some other naval gazing nonsense about how said famous person’s work fits into the writer’s own life? I hate that format. The new movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is about the creation of one of those articles and in many ways it also plays out like one of them. The film is being advertised as a movie about the famed children’s TV personality Fred Rogers as portrayed by Tom Hanks and I suspect many audiences are going to go into it expecting something along the line of a biopic but that’s not exactly what this movie is. Rather than being a movie that was truly about Rogers the film is about an Esquire journalist with daddy issues who met with Rogers in 1998, skeptical about how interested he’d be in the man, only to find himself won over by Rogers as the TV host Mary Poppinsed his way into the reporters life to solve all his personal problems.
I do understand the instinct to go against a more traditional biopic format for this. A movie that’s closer to a traditional biopic format would have probably fallen into cliché and the movie also probably would have fallen short of last year’s documentary about the same subject matter Won’t You Be My Neighbor, which already provided a pretty ideal primer for Rogers’ life and philosophy for those who want it. So I certainly didn’t want them to do that but the approach they did go with didn’t work for me either. The reporter in question, played by Matthew Rhys, just did not interest me and I’m not sure that the scenes with Rogers work all that well either. Tom Hanks would seem to be the natural choice to play Rogers given that he is himself a nationally beloved figure but he’s a bit young to be playing Rogers (who would have been 70 years old in 1998 and about four years away from death) and something about the way he imitates Rogers’ voice is… unsettling. The audience is clearly supposed to be won over by Rogers’ pleasant ways but much of the film had a slightly opposite effect on me. It sort of makes Rogers seem like a very strange person who would have been a real pain in the ass to actually try to speak with as an adult. I’m sure some of that is intentional and meant to reflect the protagonist’s frustrations, but I’m not exactly sure where there’s supposed a switch where his demeanor is supposed to flip from being weird to being charming because it never really happened for me. Ultimately I’m not sure there was much of anything this movie could have done to work for me, last year’s documentary kind of hit the limit of my interest in this guy and a scripted movie on top of that just doesn’t seem necessary.
** out of Five