Monday, 14 October 2019

LFF 2019: The Irishman

The Irishman is the second film that could truly be classed as 'late Scorsese'. Like Silence before it, but a bazillion miles away from The Wolf Of Wall Street before that, Marty's latest is an understated piece that sees him in contemplative mood. It's a return to the worlds of Mean Streets, GoodFellas and Casino that he's become most famous for (despite making over 20 other, non-mob-related movies), but he's not remotely interested in repeating himself. Where those films boiled over with youthful energy, The Irishman is a more meditative affair. As its protagonist looks back on a life of crime, its director looks back on a life of crime drama; whether either of them truly find closure is as ambiguous as you'd expect.
We're introduced to Robert De Niro's Frank Sheeran in the first of two framing devices. Parked in his wheelchair in a care home for the elderly in around 2000, he reminisces on a fateful road trip he took in 1975. This becomes the jumping-off point for an epic, decade-spanning riffle through the bloodstained pages of his life: a personal journey through American crime and politics in the mid-late 20th century. A not-entirely-honest trucker in the late 1950s, Sheeran's willingness to circumvent the rules brings him to the attention of mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci, reluctantly coming out of retirement for one last hit). Bufalino hires Sheeran as muscle for various unpleasant jobs, eventually lending his services to truckers' union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), and his relationships with both men form the bulk of the narrative.

You'll have noticed some big names there, and it's a genuine delight to see all this Hollywood royalty turning out such great work. De Niro surprises as an initially somewhat naive gopher with a gun; possessing none of the authority of GoodFellas' Jimmy Conway or Casino's Ace Rothstein, Sheeran comes across as a blunt instrument wielded by the mob. Desensitised to violence after a tour of duty in Italy in the Second World War, he's happy to do as he's told regardless of the mounting cost to his soul: "Like the army, you follow orders, you get rewarded." De Niro still convinces as a raging bull when necessary, but he conveys the sense that Sheeran's survival has more to do with his unswerving loyalty than any wiseguy acumen. He also does The Robert De Niro Face for pretty much the entire running time, and that is a gift.

Al Pacino, meanwhile, pulls up just short of Full Pacino, and there's some fun to be had wondering how much Scorsese had to reign him in. But it's Joe Pesci who provides the most by giving the least: withered and creased, even when de-aged with CGI, he plays Bufalino with a softly spoken, authoritative menace that never needs to go near his trademark levels of madness. He and Scorsese know you've seen what he's capable of, and trust you to keep that at the back of your mind while he calmly, but terrifyingly, mediates and negotiates.
The Irishman blends new and old school Scorsese, as each of his successive films does. Violence is still a key motif, but in line with the mood, it's less glamorous, clumsier and over quicker than in previous films. Gunshots crack where they used to thunder, and those fountains of blood are reduced to brief, murky spatters. Execution-style killing just ain't what it used to be. Marty still delights and surprises with his trademark flashes of brilliance, though: low-level hoods are each introduced with a caption detailing their eventual method and time of demise (1980 was clearly a bad year for bad guys), swooping crane shots pull you right into the centre of the drama, and that obsession with detail is still there. When Sheeran explains that the best chilli dogs are made by steaming them in beer (recalling GoodFellas' sliced onions), it's with the same weight as the decision-making process by which he chooses the right gun for a hit (recalling Taxi Driver's Easy Andy). And then there are those wonderfully obscure terms whose meanings you have to infer yourself: "I heard you paint houses" and "Going to Australia" have very little to do with interior design or Antipodean holidays, and "It is what it is" carries considerably more threat when muttered by a gimlet-eyed Joe Pesci.

There are, of course, two elephants in the room, one of which is an extremely long elephant, and the other of which has been made to look like a younger elephant with CGI trickery. At a bladder-bothering 209 minutes, The Irishman could probably survive a minor trim. But it genuinely doesn't feel like three and a half hours; Marty and editor Thelma Schoonmaker are by now the dons of keeping an audience interested for lengthy periods of time, and you won't notice your joints have seized up until the credits roll. That said, the colossal running time and the film's home on Netflix are not unconnected, so there's always the opportunity to spread out a viewing over several sessions if you're a total monster. The digital de-ageing, meanwhile, is barely worth mentioning simply because it's so good you hardly notice it beyond its first appearance, so let's dismiss that elephant too.
If the film suffers, it's from a lack of exposition that Scorsese deliberately withholds. Events are presented as the memories of an old man, so it's understandable that you might have to play catch-up on a few occasions, but there are relationships and motivations going on here that I struggled to follow as thoroughly as I'd have liked. A hefty chunk of the third hour left me frustrated because I genuinely didn't know what conflict characters were trying to resolve. Again, though, maybe that's what Netflix is for. But it won't be able to do anything about the glaring lack of any decent female roles; one of Sheeran's four daughters is the only woman to play an important part in the story, and Scorsese opts to give her the bare minimum of dialogue, even when her adult self is played by an actress of Anna Paquin's talent.

In the final reckoning, The Irishman is a sober rumination on loyalty and legacy. Like Henry Hill at the climax of GoodFellas, Sheeran's choices lead him to a lonely fate where all he can do is reflect on what he's lost, which amounts to pretty much everything, and his reaction to that is characteristically downbeat. He did it his way, but there's no Sex Pistols on the soundtrack to suggest any of it was worth it. I wish I'd been more moved by that than I was, but there's enough in The Irishman to tempt me back for another 209 minutes, and maybe then I can get fully on board with Late Scorsese.

Friday, 11 October 2019

LFF 2019: Knives Out

If Kenneth Branagh's do-over of Agatha Christie's Murder On The Orient Express has ushered in a new age of whodunnits, then all power to him. I haven't seen that film, because despite somehow avoiding spoilers for an 83-year-old story for my entire life, someone who shall remain nameless ruined the end for me in the kitchen at work, yeah thanks CATHY. Fortunately even she couldn't spoil Knives Out for me because she wasn't at the LFF screening of it this week, but I was, so guess who's going to have a fun, movie-ruining chat in the kitchen next week? That's right, better bring your fucking earplugs on Monday Cathy, my chatty friend!

Anyway. Cathy excluded, most of you should be able to make it to Knives Out without some twat spoiling it for you, what with it being an original story by its director Rian Johnson. Turns out Johnson's talents range all the way from triggering Star Wars incels to crafting sharply-observed, brain-twisting murder-mysteries with a killer cast including one Daniel Wroughton Craig, who hasn't had this much fun on screen since he played a stormtrooper in The Force Awakens. For this alone, we must thank Johnson with all our hearts.
Craig plays master detective and "last of the gentleman sleuths" (it's such a shame that one so rarely gets the chance to use the word 'sleuth' in everyday conversation) Benoit Blanc, hired to ferret out the killer of Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), an 85-year-old multi-millionaire crime novelist and head of the dysfunctional Thrombey family. DC is having a ruddy ball here, losing himself in an accent you could coat chicken with and serve at a Cajun restaurant. I find it fascinating that in all of Craig's non-Bond film roles since Skyfall (to be fair, there've only been four, including The Force Awakens), he's gone for American accents, and two of those have been from the southern states. It's almost as if he's trying to push himself as far away from Bond as possible for some reason.

But Johnson has also assembled an incredible roster of suspects for Blanc to Poirot at until they blab. Jamie Lee Curtis is the hard-ass matriarch, Don Johnson her philandering husband, Chris Evans their arrogant son. Michael Shannon plays against type as Thrombey's pitiful youngest child, Toni Collette is his hippy-dippy sister-in-law and Lakeith Stanfield is an easy-going but none-too-effective cop. Meanwhile Ana de Armas, almost certainly destined to be one of Bond's cock-warmers in the forthcoming 007 film, whatever it's called, plays Thrombey's immigrant nurse. Even M Emmett Walsh rocks up at one point, providing the film's biggest surprise: he's still alive! It's a star-studded cast in keeping with the Agatha Christie adaptations of old - and new, thanks to Ken - and it's a delight to watch them play off each other.
Naturally every character has a potential motive for bumping off the old man, and these are explored in a slickly-written and edited opening barrage of interviews between Stanfield's plod and the family. Johnson twists and weaves back and forth through his story's timeline, sometimes slipping the audience a little more information than the characters, sometimes vice versa. It's enough to keep you on your toes, and enough to make you boggle at what the wall of Post-It notes in his writer's room must have looked like. And Johnson remembers to slip plenty of gags into his film's cracks, not least of which is Blanc's baffling "doughnut hole" speech, which I could happily listen to on a loop for days.

There's a welcome, if a little thin, seam of political commentary running through proceedings: one scene sees a family discussion stop just short of them all donning MAGA caps, and it's enough to make you realise that what's going on here is a mild critique of inherited wealth, white privilege and anti-immigration sentiment. It's a grace note more than anything, never threatening to overwhelm the entertainment, but a little more of that kind of thing wouldn't have gone amiss. What we get instead is hard to complain about: two hours of solidly crafted, cleverly plotted fun. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little disappointed by the big reveal, but that's fine because I'm sure Knives Out is merely the first in a series of Benoit Blanc mysteries. After all, surely Daniel Craig is looking for a new franchise right about now?

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

LFF 2019: Jojo Rabbit

Got to be honest guys, Taika Waititi has never really set my world on fire. I like where he's coming from, and I enjoy most of his stuff (the best of it is still Flight Of The Conchords), but I've always felt that some of the jokes have been flubbed, or the storytelling has lacked a little complexity. Jojo Rabbit suffers from the same issues, but to a lesser extent, and while it's not flawless it is my favourite of Waititi's movies, and also the film I've enjoyed the most out of all the films I've seen at the London Film Festival so far (I have seen four).
It's the arse end of WWII and 10-year-old Johannes "Jojo" Betzler (Roman Griffin Davies, adorable) is a new recruit in the Hitler Youth. The cult of Hitler (compared smartly with Beatlemania under the title sequence) has indoctrinated Jojo so deeply that the Führer is his imaginary friend, played as an avuncular manchild by Waititi himself. Jojo's mum Rosie (Scarlett Johansson, adorable), however, is less keen on the whole genocide of the Jews thing, and when Jojo discovers that she's Anne Franked a 17-year-old girl (Thomasin McKenzie, adorable) inside their house, his tiny mind is addled by conflicting loyalties.

And that's it really: you can probably guess how it all ends up, so it's left to Waititi to spin his own brand of comedy out of what could, quite easily, be a straight-faced drama. It probably takes a good hour for his film to get to the point where it fulfils its potential, spending a lot of time expecting you to laugh at people like Rebel Wilson and Stephen Merchant simply because they are Rebel Wilson and Stephen Merchant. Fortunately Davies is engaging enough to carry the film without becoming annoying, and Johansson and McKenzie ground the drama while Sam Rockwell effortlessly provides the laughs in his few short scenes.
Waititi sets his film in a picture-postcard version of 1940s Germany, and characters talk in a decidedly 21st century vernacular for the most part. The obvious artifice renders the comedy fairly light and inoffensive, despite the claims that it's an "anti-hate satire"; there's not much in the way of satire going on, but there are still plenty of lols and a small amount of getting something in your eye to be had. It could do better at the whole "don't hate people just because they're different, you DICK" thing, and it could poke the "Nazis really are fucking idiots" hornets' nest a little more viciously, but Jojo Rabbit is well-intentioned and likeable enough to provide a solid 108 minutes' entertainment.

Monday, 7 October 2019

LFF 2019: The Lighthouse

A man takes a job maintaining an old building in a remote, isolated location in order to get away from his past. One of his predecessors, he discovers, went mad and killed himself. Human company is extremely limited and generally annoying. While there, he begins to lose his mind; nightmares seep into waking life until he isn't sure what's real any more. At some point, someone is chased by a limping crackpot wielding a massive axe. Welcome to The Lighthouse, the movie that could have legitimately been called 'The Shining' after more than just its titular glorified lightbulb.

OK, that's probably a little unfair: The Lighthouse is very much its own thing. In fact it's unforgettably unique, looking and sounding like something dredged from the depths of an aged sailor's worst memories. The monochrome photography is gorgeous, and the 1.19:1 aspect ratio ramps up the claustrophobia faced by the characters in their tiny corner of the world. While it's a visual and aural wonder, though, it left me pretty much unmoved, which is why my mind kept wandering off to the Overlook Hotel, as well as to the Bodega Bay of The Birds, thanks to some (admittedly excellent) seagull-based antagonism.
It's the late 19th century, somewhere on America's northeastern coast. Robert Pattinson is Ephraim Winslow, the reluctant lighthouse keeper's assistant; Willem Dafoe plays Thomas Wake, the grizzly, amusingly flatulent "wickie" - the guy responsible for looking after the light - for whom the term "salty sea-dog" seems to have been invented. While Wake fiercely guards his glowing mistress, Winslow is left with the menial, literally shitty jobs, and dreams of sexy, scary mermaids. Ostensibly there on a four-week stint, the two men bicker, fight, become pals, get drunk, argue a bit more, drink a lot more and then everything goes completely batshit crazy and you'd better be ready for it.

Director Robert Eggers piles on the menace with his mise en scene: the light station feels like a living thing whose eternal clanking and honking competes with Mark Korven's buzzing, droning score to see which can keep you the most unsettled. The mood is occasionally lightened by Wake's voluble anus or the pesky gulls said to harbour the spirits of sailors taken by the sea, but by and large this is a doom-laden psychodrama in which nothing can be taken at face value and which is destined to inspire any number of interpretations. (The final shot offers some clue as to where Eggers might be coming from, especially in conjunction with one of equally numerous readings of the aforementioned Kubrickian horror.)
But while certain images and sounds will stay with me for some time (again, Farty Bill leaves his mark), I was never as transported, freaked out or even interested as I felt the film wanted me to be. Like Eggers' The Witch before it, The Lighthouse has some memorable elements, but generally feels too unfocused to truly resonate. Its repetitive nature is necessary but a little wearing, and a lot of the exposition gets lost in Willem Dafoe's beard before it makes it out of the speakers. Full marks for audio-visual assault and battery but I'm afraid for me, lighthouse-based mentalism peaked with Round The Twist.

Friday, 4 October 2019

LFF 2019: The King

I may have reached the limit of my David Michôd fanboying. Animal Kingdom (2010) is still a scuzzily great crime drama, and The Rover (2014) is an underrated dystopian nightmare about where humanity is heading (to Hell, in a wheeled, overflowing commode). War Machine (2017), however, was a cultural atrocity; an actual abuse of my human rights. Nevertheless I stood by Michôd, and looked forward to The King: an adaptation of Shakespeare's Henry IV Parts III and Henry V. I like those plays a lot, and hoped Michôd might make as good a fist of them as his countryman Justin Kurzel did of Macbeth.

Needless to say: don't panic, Kenneth Branagh. As you were, Laurence Olivier's corpse. Michôd and co-writer Joel Edgerton have taken the bones of Shakespeare's plots but stripped them of his mesmerising language, to the point where they could justifiably argue that this isn't a Shakespeare adaptation at all. Their dialogue is prosaic and literal, which would almost be excusable in any non-Shakespeare-related film. But if you're going to unceremoniously dump lines like that one about the band of brothers, and that other one about once more unto the etc etc, well, you really need to come up with some decent alternatives. And having both Henrys IV and V say "fuck" doesn't count.

But let's give Michôd and Edgerton the benefit of the doubt and approach The King as a non-Shakespearey historical drama. How do they change the game? How do they add something new? How do they appeal to Generation Netflix, who are footing the budget? The answer lies in the willowy figure of Timothée Chalamet, a perfectly good actor whose ginormous fanbase is somehow as improbable as his cheekbones. Chalamet is our Hal, the rebellious prince who'd rather get royally cunted on a nightly basis with his pal-slash-tragic-father-figure Falstaff than assume the role he was literally born for. The King is already off to a wobbly start: Chalamet looks a little too clean-living for the debauchery we're meant to believe he's undertaking, and while Edgerton's not-unjustifiable retooling of Falstaff as an avuncular military tactician makes more sense than Shakespeare's sack-soaked old windbag, it deprives the character of much of his personality.
"Oh, you don't like my haircut? Well how about you get a HEADCUT? (off)"

Inevitably, Hal is required to step up and take the throne after an incident in which he heroically saves the lives of his hated father's soldiers but indirectly gets his brother (also hated) killed. Families, eh? Cuh. Now comes the interesting bit, but only if you're British: despite an indecorous past which clearly marks him out as entirely unsuitable for the role, Hal assumes the highest political office in the land, where he is advised by self-serving lickspittles. He immediately embarks on a potentially disastrous European venture driven by a public who are unreasonably fearful of foreigners; you can tell his heart's not in it but you can't argue with the will of the people, can you? At this point the allegories run dry, but I'm sure if we wait another week or two another one will become apparent.

So now lil' Timmy Chalamet is a beloved leader of men and a great warrior, and he is equally miscast as both. Sure, Hal is meant to be an unlikely king, but Chalamet is just a little too young, too slight and too pretty; his presence comes across as more of a marketing tool than a logical creative choice. He's not bad, he's just the wrong king - I'd happily believe him as Shakespeare's weak and naive Henry VI, and I'm sure he could sink his teeth into the dastardly doings of Richard III. What's more, Hal's crown puts so much pressure on his brain that where yesterday he would avoid war at all costs, today he's desperate to do what his father couldn't: beat the shit out of those cheese-eating surrender monkeys across the Channel in a big fuck-off war.

By this point the film has been trundling on for quite some time without much of any interest coming to pass, and it's been doing so with such painful earnestness that even Falstaff, the de facto comic relief, has barely cracked a smile. There has been a great deal of talking though, which is all well and good, but what we could really do with - to quote another King - is a little less conversation, a little more action.
"All zis aggravation ain't satisfactionin' moi"

And that's when Robert Pattinson appears to liven things up with his Tommy Wiseau laugh and his Inspector Clouseau accent. He's the Dauphin of France, the King's son, and The King's pantomime villain. Chalamet is visibly furious at Pattinson's attempts to steal the show from under him, and understandably declares war. The Battle of Agincourt is the film's only skirmish, which smacks of budgetary necessity, and while it's coherently shot and cut (which is more than can be said for most movie battles), it's exactly the same as every other medieval clash you've ever seen, right down to the slow motion brutality soundtracked by ethereal music. And then, as if to hammer the final nail into its own coffin, The King - which has so far been so po-faced it could pass for a Teletubby - opts for wildly misjudged slapstick, of all things, at a crucial moment.

In Michôd's defence, his film does look good: his camera adores Chalamet, as they all do, and he composes a beautiful night-time trebuchet attack on a French castle. Also his and Edgerton's deviation from what we must wankily refer to as "the text" allows him to ditch Hal's unbearable wooing of Kate, his newly acquired French missus, in favour of giving her a small but important last-reel role in a movie that's otherwise a near-total sausagefest. But it's not enough to erase the sheer unremarkableness of the preceding two hours, and the crucial underlying themes of destiny and family - along with my long-held stanning of David Michôd - are lost somewhere in the vasty fields of France.