Thursday, November 21, 2019

On "The Irishman"

With his previous film "Silence" (2016) and now "The Irishman", Scorsese has certainly entered his pensive period and, as a filmmaker whose lifelong investments have been people struggling with the cause and effect of inner turmoil (both spiritually and non), "The Irishman" may be his crowning reflection on the matter. As a sweeping tapestry of mid-century gangsterism and unionist history, it's a completely enveloping recreation of the stalwart loud mouths (Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa) and powerfully quiet sea changers (Joe Pesci as mob boss Russell Bufalino) who had their fingers on the pulse. And as a character study of one man (Robert DeNiro as Frank Sheeran) along for the turbulent and violent ride, it's a meditative masterpiece that ends on such a somber, devastating image that even after 3 and a half hours, I was still stunned it was over.

Bringing together his most star-studded ensemble yet, part of the film's magnificent poise about guilt-ridden existence long after the dust has settled lies in the etched faces of icons Pacino, DeNiro and Pesci. It succeeds not only in their wondrous interpretation of Steve Xaillan's screenplay, but in the very history of their iconic status. In a climactic scene between Pacino and DeNiro (which has been foretold as truth by one party and unilaterally denied by about every other camp in the world), Scorsese makes sure to slow things down to a crawl.... focusing on eyes, bodies and sideways glances that exudes serene betrayal at every moment. I don't imagine it working quite so brilliantly with any other actors in the world.

However, though the underlying emotions of the film speak loudest, "The Irishman" is, after all, a Scorsese gangster picture where the violence is swift and damning and the camera a secondary floating character to the action of men going about their routine business of killing. Bringing together disparate technical forays of his previous films (tracking shots, freeze frame light bulb clicks, text on the screen that plays with the existence of time), it's also an effort that feels at home in its place of a canon started back in the 70's with "Mean Streets" in which masculinity, religion, self esteem and consequences are wound up tight in a universe spun from the creative Scorsese mind. The only difference is that now, these men are left sitting alone, abandoned by everyone, wondering if their lives were worth the fuss. If it can't be answered now, at least part of the unique joy in cinema has been watching Scorsese and his crew of actors beg the question.

Thursday, November 07, 2019

The Current Cinema 19.6

The Current War

Broaching a subject matter close to my heart (just try and tear me away from gilded age history books and my 4 different Tesla biographies), Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's "The Current War" is a fleet-footed and propulsive tear through the divisive birth of modern electricity and the men who harnessed its infancy. Each character- Edison played by Benedict Cumberbatch, Tesla by Nicholas Hoult and Westinghouse by Michael Shannon- is given equal weight as each man delineates his earnestness to the cause, a couple led by their intelligent mechanical brains and the other through his keen awareness of currents as currency. With a pervasively restless camera and a sharp script that breezes through history while still finding time to shine on the ruminative moments of its prescient world-builders, "The Current War" is also a complete surprise because of its rumored checkered history For a film that languished on the shelf for more than a year, Gomez-Rejon's work emerges unscathed as a genuinely brash resurrected entertainment. It also features a killer soundtrack by Saunder Jurriaans and Danny Bensi.


Although it's not quite a horror film, one of the most horrific moments of the year on-screen happens in Bong Joon Ho's "Parasite" as a set of crazed-white eyes slowly peers up from the darkness from a set of basement level steps, igniting a child's nightmarish imagination and sending the second half of the film into a frenzy of drastic action and numbing consequence. It's what Joon Ho does best- wringing recognizable genres until they twist into a morass of social commentary and obfuscated styles. What begins as ant act of greedy infiltration by a lower class family into the personal spaces of the upper class starts out simply enough before the screws are tightened and every shot, feeling and mood is controlled masterfully by Joon Ho. There are stretches in this film where I held my breath for what seemed like an eternity, hoping I'd soon be given permission to breathe. Caustically funny and whip-smart tense, "Parasite" is a master firing on all cylinders.


Kantemir Balagov's World War II drama doesn't deal with the fighting itself, but the lacerating impacts that linger long after the war has ended. Young Iya (Viktoriya Miroschnichenko) stumbles through post war Leningrad as a nurse, still seeing the effects of war on her patients and struggling with her own PTSD disorder wherein her body locks up and she goes comatose. Earning the nickname Beanpole for her unusual feminine height, her terrible mistake during one of these freezed emotional states early on in the film sets the stage for a bleak relationship with her best friend (Vasilia Perelygina) in which the moral stakes of both women are pushed to the brink of normalcy. Deliberately paced and effectively acted, "Beanpole" is probably most remarkable for taking a harrowing subject and creating an almost somnambulist drama where high emotions are registered in blank stares and the seething hatred of the upper class towards the lower class is shrouded in politely jagged dinner conversation. It's a film I admired more than fully liked, but I look forward to whatever Balagov does next. 

Motherless Brooklyn

I have to begin by asking why it's taken someone 20 years to allow actor Edward Norton to write and direct again after his sweetly affectionate and witty debut film "Keeping the Faith". I fell in love upon seeing it in the theater all those years ago and it remains one of the best films of the 90's. A far cry in mood and tone than that previous ode to Lubitsch-like romance-comedy, his latest film, "Motherless Brooklyn" still retains his affection for people and relationships even when said relationships involve extortion, bribery, corruption and murder in 50's set New York where the sky's the limit for powerful men slicing up chunks of the city. Trying to unravel the mystery is Lionel (Norton), the adopted associate of a slain snooper (Bruce Willis) whose nose gets them all involved in some hefty affairs. Complicating maters is Lionel's tourette's disorder, which serves more as a compass for the nervousness he feels when things get heady, calmed only in moments after Laura (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who may or may not be fully involved in the affair he's investigating. While the narrative of "Motherless Brooklyn" ultimately leans into noir-tinged familiarity, what's not pedestrian is Norton's supreme handling of the film's pace and composure. Lots of secondary characters (played by famous faces from Willem DaFoe to Michael K. Williams) provide a sprawling canvas of depth, but they're never allowed to overwhelm the carefully constructed atmosphere. Attuned to the beauty of the world around his concrete-bound characters, Norton continually cuts to things around them as they talk, such as golden blades of grass or the sun-lit dusted items on a bedroom dresser. For a film often caught inside the scrambled head of a man desperately trying to fit together the disjointed pieces, "Motherless Brooklyn" is a magnificently contemplative work.