Uncut Gems(12/24/2019)

You know, as a critic I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to have a deep-seeded hatred at the sight of Adam Sandler’s face but I really don’t.  I mean, if I were a “real” film critic who had to see every single movie Hollywood puts out I probably would hate the guy, but his terrible comedies are generally pretty easy to avoid, especially now that they’re going direct to Netflix and aren’t getting major advertising campaigns.  In fact I don’t think I’ve seen any Adam Sandler produced movie in theaters at all since… I think 2002’s Mr. Deeds.  The Adam Sander movies I have actually kept seeing are the occasional non-comedic ones that he isn’t producing and which are using his on-screen persona in interesting ways.  Paul Thomas Anderson was the first serious director to use him for artistic ends in his 2004 film Punch Drunk Love and he’s also done good work in films like Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) and Judd Apatow’s Funny People.  Still these moments of Sandler clarity have untimely been pretty few and far between.  Hopefully that changes though because he’s gotten his best role yet in the new film from the Safdie Brothers called Uncut Gems.

In the film Sandler plays a sort of jeweler for the stars named Howard Ratner who I suspect he was inspired by Jacob Arabo.  Ratner owns a small storefront in the diamond district whose clientele appears to be invite only as his door is locked unless a potential buyer is buzzed in.  Howard also seems to have a lot of side hustles going on and appears to gable frequently.  One day in 2012 Kevin Garnett (played by himself) walks into Howard’s store on the eve of his conference semi-finals against the Philadelphia 76ers.  Ratner shows Garnett an uncut opal that he’d just acquired through nefarious means.  Garnett is immediately transfixed by it and wants to buy it on the spot but Howard has it set for auction and can’t sell.  Determined, Garnett asks that he simply be allowed to hold onto it as a good luck charm for that night’s game.  Ratner agrees, but only if Garnett leaves his championship ring as collateral.  Garnett agrees and Ratner immediately hatches a scheme: he’ll pawn Garnett’s ring while he’s gone and use that money to bet on Garnett that night and then use those potential winnings to pay off his gambling debts and then get the ring back before Garnett knows it was ever gone, but murphy’s law being what it is this isn’t going to be as easy as Ratner things and he’ll also need to deal with issues with his wife (Idina Menzel) and mistress (Julia Fox) while also being chased by angry loan shark enforcers.

Uncut Gems is the most high profile film yet to be directed by Josh and Benny Safdie, a directorial pair who made a bit of a splash with their films Heaven Knows What and Good Time, which were movies that never quite clicked with me but showed clear potential.  Uncut Gems to me shows that potential being realized.  The Safdies tell streetwise crime films set in the seedy parts of New York City that are supposedly disappearing.  Their previous movies looked at a drug addict and a bank robber and this one looks at someone who could be described as a hustler.  Howard Ratner is quite the creation; the very look of him with his goatee, leather jacket, and designer glasses frames communicates the kind of world he operates in and Sandler modulates his voice in a way to just make him sound like a bit of a weasel.  But unlike the protagonist of Good Time, who genuinely seemed like a menace to society, you don’t really hate Ratner.  Ratner doesn’t pose much of a threat to the average person, his compulsive gambling and wheeling and dealing mostly only poses a threat to himself and to the people who are foolish enough to go into not so legitimate business with him.

Much of the movie consists of Ratner running around the city trying to keep his various plates spinning, it’s kind of like a slowed down and movie length version of that section of Goodfellas where Henry Hill running a bunch of errands for the mafia while taking care of personal issues all while the FBI helicopters are swarming overhead.  But the Safdies aren’t Scorsese and they bring their own style to the proceedings.  Rather than fill their film with rock and roll cues they have this wild synth score in place and they have pretty modern cultural sensibilities.  The film is set in 2012, presumably to put it in a time when Kevin Garnett is still playing basketball, and they manage to make some appropriate soundtrack selections and make some cool casting choices like including a prominent cameo by The Weeknd.  You generally get the impression that these guys are plugged into what’s going on in the cooler sections of Manhattan and they bring it to the screen with exuberance.  You also get the sense that they understand a thing or two about gambling culture, which is what the film is ultimately about.  Ratner is plainly a gambling addict but this addiction is broader than just the risky bets he makes on sports, it extends to broadly to the various hustles we’re seeing him do through the whole movie.  He’s a character who frustrates the audience because he makes risky mistakes, but you can tell he isn’t frustrating himself with this behavior, in fact he seems to be thrilled by the rush of it all at least when he’s winning.  And to some extent so are we but we don’t need to worry about what happens when he loses.

****1/2 out of Five

December 2019 Round-Up

Queen & Slim(12/8/2019)

It feels like yesterday but apparently it was almost a decade ago when the name “Melina Matsoukas” first caught my attention when the music video for Rihanna’s “We Found Love” captured my attention and I felt compelled to look up who directed it and she has gone on to even bigger heights in that medium by directing some of Beyonce’s more viral music videos.  Now she’s finally made her feature film debut in the form of a sort of Thelma and Louise for the Black Lives Matter movement called Queen & Slim, which is about a couple who find themselves on the run after their first date is cut short by a police stop which ends with one of them having to shoot and kill said cop in self-defense.  On some level it’s easy to be impressed that this kind of movie even exists.  Selling a movie that sympathizes with cop killers probably isn’t easy regardless of how clearly they’re actions are justified but on another level I might have liked the movie to focus on the complexity of character who have to do that in a less clear-cut case of self-defense like in the aforementioned Thelma and Louise.  Beyond that I think the movie just has some tonal problems.  Aspects of it like the costumes the characters end up in and the car they end up driving harken back to the exploitation movies of the 70s but it isn’t really fun like those movies are and doesn’t have that sense of danger that they had.  It’s trying to be a more serious Black Lives Matter issue movie in its tone but I’m not sure it really makes a lot of terribly original or unique points about police violence in that regard.  I guess I wanted the movie to either be trashier or more realistic, but it instead takes a sort of middle route that doesn’t entirely work.  Still, I do think there’s going to be an audience for it that’s going to find catharsis in there simply being a movie that brings this sort of thing to the screen.
**1/2 out of Five

 

Richard Jewell(12/13/2019)

Richard Jewell tells the true story of a security guard who was working at a satellite event at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics when he found a bomb that had been planted and seemingly saved a lot of people by starting an evacuation but who then sort of had his life derailed when the FBI started to suspect that he planted the bomb himself in order to be a hero.  This project has been floating around Hollywood for a while now and at one point even had Jonah Hill and Leonardo Di Caprio attached to star and people like Paul Greengrass and David O. Russell being considered to direct.  It’s now being brought to screen in a slightly more scaled back form with the character actor Paul Walter Hauser starring and Clint Eastwood directing.  But having seen the film I really don’t get why so many people have thought that a movie about this story would be such a winner because I’ve got to say it’s really not that interesting of a story.  In the annals of people oppressed by the FBI Richard Jewell really isn’t very high on the list.  He was never put in jail, never arrested, and it seems like he never even had his career affected.  The full extent of his “oppression” was that he found himself in the center of a news cycle in which he was being reported as a suspect in the bombing (which he was) which no one remembers or cares about anymore.

Before the movie started there was a trailer for the movie Just Mercy which is about a guy who spent six years on death row based on a wildly unfair trial, compared to that this really doesn’t strike me as all that notable of an injustice.  This matters because the film really doesn’t have that much dramatic interest outside of its righteous anger about the Richard Jewell case.  The performances are generally quite good but I kind of hate what they did with Olivia Wilde’s character, who is depicted as a vapid bimbo motivated entirely by greed.  The criticism this film has received for depicting this real life journalist exchanging sex for a lead is entirely valid and even if (big “if”) this sort of thing could be forgiven as dramatic license in other movies it is an unworkable hypocrisy here given that this is supposed to be a movie about the evils of character assassination and of misrepresenting people and yet it’s doing exactly that with this woman.  Beyond that I guess there’s not a whole lot to say.  The movie certainly isn’t unwatchable, the dialogue is mostly good and the acting is fine, I guess I just fundamentally don’t see why this needed to be a feature film with this level of talent behind it.
**1/2 out of Five

 

Bombshell(12/21/2019)

Director Jay Roach has had a strange little career where he began as a maker of commercial star vehicle comedies like the Austin Powers movies and the Meet the Parents movies and then transitioned into making serviceable but not overly inspired political docudramas like Recount and Game Change for HBO but he’s had less luck bringing that side of his career to the big screen.  His most high profile political film for theaters is his latest film Bombshell, which details the sexual harassment scandal at Fox News and how it came to be national prominence before the advent of #MeToo.  Roach’s political movies have always been pretty effective at making famous people look and sound like political figures from the recent past and this is not really an exception.  Charlize Theron certainly looks a lot like Megyn Kelly (though I’m not sure she sounds quite right) and Nicole Kidman looks a lot like Gretchen Carlson and the film is generally populated by a strong cast of supporting players portraying other side personalities.  The film also seems to recreate the Fox Newsroom plausibly and the script is generally written with a requisite degree of wit and clarity.  People looking for another of Jay Roach’s HBO productions should be satisfied on that level, but this is a theatrical film and it never quite achieves that cinematic quality which would elevate it beyond that.

However, I think the bigger problem with this is that it’s a movie that requires its viewer to sympathize with Fox News anchors on some level and view them as remotely admirable people, and that is something that I don’t think I’m entirely capable of.  Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson are in fact terrible people.  They knowingly worked for and helped advance a propaganda outlet that has coarsened out political discourse and has spread untold chaos and suffering across the country.  Now let me be entirely clear, I am not in any way saying that this means they deserved to be sexually harassed, but there is something galling about people who spend their days advocating for hatred against people of color, immigrants, the LGBT community, and women who don’t work for Fox News suddenly deciding to care about this toxicity when it hurts them personally.  There are ways a movie about this topic could have reckoned with that that and found ways to explore this conflict, but this movie never really finds a way to do that and can’t really find a way to make these people feel like anything other than heroic whistleblowers.  If that doesn’t bother you, then this is a passable movie with reasonably good production values, but it does bother me.
**1/2 out of Five

 

The Cave(12/29/2019)

The Cave is one of two major documentaries from this year about the conflict in Syria, the other one being For Sama and having now seen both of them it’s difficult not to compare and contrast.  This one was directed by Feras Fayyad, who had previously directed Last Man in Aleppo, which focused on the “White Helmets” and this one looks at another group of humanitarians trying to do the best they can, namely a group of doctors working at the last remaining hospital in the city which is a makeshift operation in underground tunnels that can’t be as easily bombed.  The focus is on the hospital’s manager Amani Ballor who seems like a fairly impressive person.  It takes a while to get going but toward the second half it really starts to get dramatic and features some sad if exciting moments like when the hospital staff has to treat a bunch of people caught in a chemical weapon attack.  It’s generally more professionally made than For Sama but can get a little pretentious in its construction in the way that the personal For Sama does not.  On the other hand while both films have their rough moments For Sama has more graphic imagery in it so people sensitive about that sort of thing might be better served by The Cave.  Looking past the comparison though this is still a strong look at life during a modern war and it makes you really really mad at Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin.
*** out of Five

Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker(12/19/2019)

You know who I’m jealous of?  The 95% of the population who are going to go see Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker without having spent the last two years arguing about the merits of the last movie, Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi, on the internet.  This endless debate has been just a real bummer and has mostly consisted of people talking right past each other while making strawmen out of one another.  It’s been especially painful for me since I was among the people who didn’t like that movie which kind of put me at odds with both the critical consensus and in the rather awkward position of arguing against a movie for what I considered the right reasons while knowing there were a handful of people who were also arguing against it for the not so right reasons.  But I wasn’t going to just shut up and pretend there wasn’t a whole lot about that movie which bugged me and I ended up writing a three thousand three hundred word review of the damn thing which I think is to date the longest review I’ve ever written.  And now this whole debate is being rekindled all over again by the final film in this new Star Wars trilogy, which was directed by J.J. Abrams rather than Rian Johnson and which critics seem to be coming at it with knives out (pun intended) for perceived offenses against their preferred installment.  I’m going to do my best to discuss this thing without rehashing the old TLJ arguments all over again and I certainly don’t plan to set new length records.

We learn right from the film’s opening crawl that Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) has somehow resurrected and soon learn that he had created Snoke and was behind the resurgence of the Empire during this trilogy.  Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) has already found him and has begun to plot with him, but no one else knows where he is.  Meanwhile Rey (Daisy Ridley) has continued her Jedi training under Leia (Carrie Fisher) but then Poe (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) arrive at the base with a lead suggesting that Palpatine is on an unknown planet called Exegol, a name that Rey recognizes from one of Luke Skywalker’s journals.  Knowing that The First Order is about to go on the offensive using a fleet of super star destroyers that will destroy the rebellion if they can’t find Palpatine and put an end to all of this.  As such Rey, Poe, Finn, Chewbacca, BB8, and C-3PO set out to recapture the trail that Luke was on to find this planet years ago.

If I had to sum up my objections to The Last Jedi it would be that it not only ignored mysteries that were deliberately set up in the first film but it dismissed them in the most disrespectful way possible.  It essentially told the fans they were stupid for having invested in ideas that J.J. Abrams had told them to invest in in the first place.  For instance, critics seemed to think there was a whole lot of interest to be mined from the fact that Rey’s parents weren’t prominent figures from earlier films, but to me that was just the most anti-climactic possible solution to a mystery from the first film.  There’s nothing new about force users coming from “nobodies,” hell, Anakin Skywaker himself came from “nowhere.”  So that wasn’t a radical reinvention so much as it was a lame “surprise” that didn’t fit within the original puzzle.  And now that he’s back in the director’s chair people are accusing J.J. Abrams of “capitulating” to the “bad fans” who dared not to like their precious Rian Johnson movie when the truth of the matter is that he was clearly just reverting back to the original vision he had when he made the widely popular The Force Awakens.  He also clears up a few other things that Johnson recklessly muddled like the origins of Snoke, Luke Skywalker’s reasons for having a bad attitude about training Rey, and the bad out of place comedy is kept to a minimum.

Of course there are still issues with this trilogy that this isn’t able to fix.  There’s still no explanation for why Rey was able to become a lightsaber savant without training and the basic logistics of how the First Order managed to take over the galaxy so quickly generally don’t make a lot of sense.  I would also say that the general trend of these movies mirroring installments of the original trilogy continues.  The Force Awakens was almost scene for scene similar to A New Hope, The Last Jedi very closely mirrored The Empire Strikes Back (despite critics’ insistence that it’s some sort of avant-garde reinvention), and the new film certainly has a lot in common with The Return of the Jedi though I’d argue not it’s not a ripoff to anywhere near the degree that The Force Awakens was.  Yes, the film has the Emperor and Lando but there isn’t really an equivalent to Jabba’s palace here and while the film does end in a big battle that’s intercut with a more personal conflict between Jedi something like that was probably inevitable regardless of who made this movie.  I would also say that the film is a little too drunk on slightly pandering cameos toward the end and I would also say that the movie isn’t entirely successful in building a performance out of Carrie Fisher stock footage to give Leia a meaningful role in the film.  That last issue was probably unavoidable to some extent but still the fact of the matter is that it’s pretty obvious what’s happening there and it’s not seamless.

But as easy as it is to pick holes in certain elements of the movie, but pros outweigh the cons in a pretty big way for me.  This is the first time we’ve really seen the cast of the new trilogy working together on a mission and the adventure elements here really delivered for me.  I’ve heard people say that the movie is “overstuffed” and moves too fast but to some extent that fast pace seems like an asset to me.  The characters find themselves on some visually interesting planets and there are some fairly solid action scenes along the way.  I also thought the film did a better job than I expected resolving the tensions between Rey and Kylo Ren, which I thought was kind of a mess by the end of The Last Jedi.  Beyond that I actually liked how hopeful and crowd pleasing the film’s finale was.  There’s nothing revolutionary about the way the last battle plays out but it certainly milks your desire to see win triumph over evil and as much as I might say they went a little overboard on some of the fan service I would be lying if I didn’t say I was struck when some of it happened.  It’s a kind of catharsis we from franchises like this in troubling times like these.

Honestly I’m not sure I’ve done a wonderful job of defending this movie, but I’m also kind of surprised that this is a movie that needs defending.  I can see why some people would be disappointed that this didn’t go off in whatever wild direction they thought The Last Jedi was pointing towards but isn’t that the same argument that was dismissed when people made it about The Last Jedi itself and its decision to ignore what The Force Awakens set up?  I heard one prominent Film Twitter personality accuse it of being “rude” to Rian Johnson as if Rian Johnson hadn’t been incredible rude to J.J. Abrams first.  And what’s really strange about the reception is that just about everything it’s been accused of things that are pretty in keeping with what The Force Awakens was doing, and last time I checked people liked The Force Awakens a lot.  I have the receipts; that movie is at 93% on Rotten Tomatoes and a solid 81 on Metacritic, if you liked that movie you should like this one or at least not be overly surprised that it is the way it is and the people claiming it’s “worse than the prequels” really strike me as being wildy un-objective… of course I’m doubt I can be too objective about it either.  It’s Star Wars dammit, it’s a series that’s ingrained in the back of my psyche and has been since I was a small child so what can I say, it’s a movie that delivered some quality Star Wars and even in this world where Disney is wildly monetizing that IP you don’t really get that too often.

***1/2 out of Five

1917(12/2/2019)

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

The Irishman(11/23/2019)

11-23-2019TheIrishman

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

November 2019 Round-Up

Knives Out(11/22/2019)

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