The Irishman (US, 2019)

The old school ride again

As I’ve been complaining that Netflix don’t give enough exposure in cinemas to their films I felt obliged to go and see The Irishman. ‘Obliged’ doesn’t suggest enthusiasm, the lack of which is partly explained by the 209 minute commitment but I was also wary of the film being compared to Goodfellas (US, 1990), which I didn’t like. My fears were well founded, though I do find myself way outside the critical consensus on this one. The first half an hour was so bad I considered leaving but it improved in the middle when political interference by the mafia became the film’s subject. I forced myself to finish the film when the social context disappeared toward the end.

I’m exaggerating, it’s not a terrible film: how could it be with a great cast at the top of their form? It’s particularly good to see Al Pacino, whose appearances have been infrequent recently, playing union boss Jimmy Hoffa. He dials down his sometimes over-the-top schtick to give nuance to a larger-than-life character. When Heat (US, 1995) was released it was hyped as the first time Pacino and De Niro shared a scene. They do so again, De Niro plays Frank Sheeran (the Irishman) who became Hoffa’s minder; this time they are in pyjamas. It’s a knowing touch that scriptwriter Steve Zaillian and director Scorsese (they also collaborated on the vastly superior Gangs of New York, US-Italy, 2003) bring to the film which gives it a valedictory feel. I wonder whether some of the lauding of the film is because it harks back to the (so-called) glory days of Hollywood where brilliantly produced and thought-provoking movies were made. It’s unlikely that the major studios would produce anything like this these days: $150m for a non-franchise film?! The opening shot reminded me of the dolly at the start of Mean Streets (US, 1973) with a pop song high in the mix; this was the director’s breakthrough film. It’s bravura filmmaking but also, because of its association with a movie from 50 years ago, old-fashioned. Scorsese’s association with the gangster film (Casino, US-France, 1995, was also better than this), as well as the lead actors, Pesci came out of retirement to appear, all give it an end of the road feel.

I didn’t like Goodfellas because I felt the film actually thought the psychopaths it portrayed were good fellas. That tendency is not so pronounced in The Irishman but it is still an issue when we are clearly meant to feel sorry for Sheeran at the film’s end. If I cannot care about a character then I have difficulty engaging in a film; by care, I don’t necessarily mean ‘like’. Why are we supposed to sympathise with a heartless relic?

The $150m has been well spent. In an interview in the current issue of Sight & Sound, costume designer Sandy Powell states that De Niro had 102 costumes, there are 160 speaking parts and 7000 extras. The film does look great. It’s a tribute to Scorsese and his crew that these vast forces, in a narrative that crosses five decades, cohere across the three and a half hours duration. However, it is Scorsese’s direction that disappointed me most. It was too workaday (shot-reverse/shot prevailed) and one high angle shot used to establish location (on the way to Hoffa’s final meeting) is used three times within a few minutes that, for me, simply emphasised how long everything was taking. There was none of the ‘operatic’ grandeur of Gangs of New York; though Bradshaw uses the term in his review.

The marginalisation of women is also an issue for me, but I’m not blaming the film for that as it is a result of the world being portrayed. That the marvellous Anna Paquin gets only six words of dialogue is worth remarking upon, especially as she is used as the film’s moral compass. However, that is the point, because women did not get a say in this world, violence ensued. It would be good if Scorsese, in his twilight years, revisited Alice Doesn’t Live Here Any More (US. 1974).

System Crasher (Systemsprenger, Germany, 2019) – LIFF6

Close to the knuckle

The last film I saw at this year’s Leeds International Film Festival proved to be the best: it had me weeping. Are films that make you so sad that you cry the antithesis of escapism or do they (hopefully) make us feel better about our own lives and so escaping to a worse place makes us feel better? In System Crasher we are taken into the world of Benni (played with astonishing brilliance by Hannah Zengel), a traumatised nine-year-old that even the seemingly robust German social services system cannot contain. Aristotle argued that the purpose of narratives was catharsis: the audience is purged of emotion and so feels satisfied. System Crasher just left me feeling sad but, importantly, empathetic to people with mental health problems and those that try to help them. Watching a wide range of films aids empathy for others, something that our divided times lacks in many instances.

Writer-director Nora Fingscheidt has produced a gripping narrative that sees social workers trying to do their best for Benni; though there is an implicit critique of the use of drugs. Interestingly, the Variety review sees this criticism as divisive and presumably in America there is more belief in pharmacological solutions? There is a moment, early in the film, when Micha (Albrecht Schuch) takes Benni under his wing and they spend three weeks in the woods. I’m sure in an American retelling this sort-of Walden would lead to a resolution; we are in Europe and such sentimentality is thankfully absent from this film. Incidentally, Variety‘s jibe about the film not really blaming anyone, even Benni’s mum, is wide of the mark for there is a heartbreaking scene when the social worker breaks down because of the mother’s uselessness. That said, Fingscheidt does not go for designating anyone as evil; that would be too simplistic. My partner trained as a therapist and worked with disturbed children; she confirmed the utter authenticity of the portrayal of traumatised youngsters. If the film was set in the UK, no doubt, the cuts to social services by the Tory government would have also formed an impediment to helping these children.

If I have one quibble, it’s with the final freeze frame which didn’t, for me, sum up the film; that said, it opens in the UK next week and I strongly recommend it.

The only film I was disappointed by at the festival was Synonyms (Synonymes, France-Israel-Germany, 2019) where a self-indulgent male gets into various situations in Paris. At first it seemed as if it was going to be a critique of Israel, but co-writer and director Nadav Lapid eschews politics, as far as I could tell, and the film becomes a mush where everything disappoints the protagonist.

 

Calm with Horses (UK-Ireland, 2019) – LIFF5

Arm’s Iago looks over him

This is an impressive feature film debut from director Nick Roland and writer Joe Murtagh (based on a Colin Barrett story of the same name). It features a low level gang in the west of Ireland who blight the lives of all they touch, including themselves. It is the not-very-bright protagonist, Arm (brilliantly played by Cosmo Jarvis who was in Lady Macbeth, UK, 2016), with whom we are invited to sympathise with the most despite the violence he metes out at the beginning of the film. Just before this he voiceovers, a technique not used in the rest of the film, that we shouldn’t think that men of violence like to be violent. It is an unnecessary statement because it soon becomes clear that that’s what the film’s about; in addition, Jarvis’ ‘hard man’ stare clearly conceals a deep vulnerability.

Arm is an ex-boxer who leaves the ring after killing a man during a bout and is recruited by the nascent leader of the Dever family, superbly played by Barry Keoghan, as his enforcer. There’s something of an Iago about Keoghan’s character, whispering into Arm’s ear about how his ex-partner is trying to blackmail him for money for his autistic son. You can almost see the conflict boiling beneath Arm’s battered face as he struggles with his loyalties. In the way it is pronounced, the ‘Dever family’ sounds like the ‘Devil family’ and the moniker is not far wrong.

Cinematographyer Piers McGrail manages to drain the stunning landscapes of western Ireland of their grandeur, giving a suitably gritty look that is far from the tourist ‘Kerrygold’ imagery. Most of the people, too, who populate the film are miles away from the whimsical friendliness of the Emerald Isle. Instead we see desperate people in desperate circumstances. There is some hope, though, through the mother of Arm’s child, played by Niamh Algar, who is striving to do the best for her difficult son; and Anthony Welsh has a small role as a BAME student from the north of England researching the use of horses in therapy and he punctures the insularity of the narrative world. Maybe in the original story the horses are more central; here they are peripheral.

It’s an impressive film that, although offering a sort of redemption, avoids any sentimentality in its ending. I’m looking forward to this talented crews’ next offerings. It’s due for release in the UK next March.

The Report (US, 2019)

Nearly swamped by ‘intelligence’

Writer-director Scott Z Burns succeeds in The Report where he failed as scriptwriter of The Laundromat (US, 2019), directed by Steven Soderbergh, in presenting complex material in an engaging and dramatic fashion. The Laundromat floundered, despite Soderbergh throwing tricksy set-ups at the viewer and a stellar cast, because the attempt to tell the story of the Panama Papers through an ordinary person didn’t work. The Report tells of the investigation into the CIA’s use of torture in the ‘war on terror’ through the chief investigator, the dogged Dan Jones (the suitably taciturn Adam Driver), and this gives the film a central pillar at the heart of the narrative. It also benefits from a great performance from Annette Bening as Dianne Feinstein, the chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, who has to negotiate between Jones’ determination to get the report published and Washington political machinations.

Both films are vital contributions to democracy as they attempt to inform the general public about corruption which is something corporate media, in general, fails to do. In the UK, where the BBC used to have a reputation for robust reporting, public service broadcasting fails to convey the complexity of these issues and the malfeasance of our ruling classes (the BBC recently edited out the laughter greeted by Boris Johnson’s statement that truth in politics is important thus saving the man from ridicule). Complexity does not sit well in the 24-hour news cycle (actually the cycle is much shorter these days) and much of the press in the UK is like Fox News in America: propaganda outlets for the powerful. Complexity is not easy for mainstream films either and I doubt The Report will pull up trees at the box office even though it deserves to. It’s not dissimilar to All the President’s Men (US, 1976) which dramatised the investigation into Watergate; the establishing shot of the brutalist concrete of the building Jones works in references the earlier film. It’s a damning sign of the times that Pakula’s ’70s film won Oscars and, despite the fact The Report is better, the new film’s shelf life in cinemas is likely to be short.

The inevitable wordiness is leavened, if that’s the right word, by re-enactments of the torture led by two contractors who convinced the CIA, post-9/11, that they had the ‘sauce’ which would get to the truth in interrogation. I was gobsmacked to learn they received $80m for their troubles. As soon as, in panic and desperation, they were given carte blanche to torture, the institutional momentum ensured they could not be stopped as no one in positions of authority wanted to admit they were wrong to go down that route in the first place. There is some wicked humour in scenes where one of the contractors states that they now know the victim of waterboarding is lying; Feinstein remarks that if one man was waterboarded 183 times, why didn’t they realise the technique doesn’t work?

The film is very good on the realpolitick that meant Obama, who’d portrayed himself as non-partisan when campaigning for the presidency, wanted to suppress the report; the references to drone strikes is also a useful corrective to that president’s saintly image (surely a result of his charm and the contrast with his successor). Zero Dark Thirty is given a justifiable poke as Bigelow’s film shamelessly lied about torture being instrumental in Bin Laden’s assassination.

Driver carries the film brilliantly. As the obstructions increasingly make it difficult for him to finish the report he slowly reaches (almost) boiling point in outrage that the truth is something that should be hidden from the people. It’s a vital film for the 21st century.

Ordinary Love (UK, 2019) – LIFF4

Quotidian existence

The quotidian, the everyday, has little purchase in narrative for most of us live it and many, when watching films, want to escape it. Thus narratives that are about love emphasise the extraordinary and ecstasy in romance; however, as is this film shows, everyday love can also be extraordinary. Theorists state that narratives require a disruption to the situation which the text will resolve at the climax and this is true, for the mainstream at least. In Ordinary Love, Joan and Tom’s retired routine is broken by the diagnosis of breast cancer and the film follows their relationship during the treatment. Cancer touches most people, as even people who are fortunate enough to avoid it are likely to know those who are unfortunate. So in this sense the disruption in this film’s narrative is eminently relatable to for all adults though the older you are the more likely you are to identify with the protagonists; their sixtysomethingness also makes it a film about heading toward the twilight of life.

Clearly this narrative is character based and the leads, Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson, are both superb; though extra plaudits to Manville for her bravery in displaying her aged body. Age is often treated with disgust, particularly by those who are younger; it is an Other that few desire but, as I used to point out to pupils who claimed they never want to get old, the alternative is worse. Neeson’s casting is potent as he’s best known these days for EuroCorp’s international thrillers, such as Taken series (2008-14, France-US-Spain), where he plays a male ego ideal who will solve problems with his ‘particular skillset’. In Ordinary Love he is ordinary and so emphasises the powerlessness partners can only feel in the face of such an illness.

Of course as a melodrama the film must use exaggeration for dramatic effect but it does so in a limited way. The use of emblems (symbols) is also restrained (a tropical fish and digging up a path amongst them) and such restraint is appropriate to the ordinariness of the narrative. It was written by Owen McCafferty, his first film, and directed by Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn who made the excellent Good Vibrations (UK-Ireland, 2012) which was set in Belfast. Ordinary Love, too, is set in Ireland though it could happen anywhere.

Another thing I liked about the film was the listing of extras: everyone of them and they fill the screen at the end credits. Credit to everyone on the film.

The Wild Goose Lake (Nan Fang Che Zhan De Ju Hui, China-France, 2019) – LIFF3

Straining to be arty

Writer-director  Diao Yi’nan won the Berlinale with Black Coal, Thin Ice (Bai ri yan huo, China, 2014), but it failed to win me over and The Wild Goose Lake suffers similarly because it fails to get beneath its often wildly engaging surface. I’m not criticising films for emphasising entertainment over profundity but when the spectator suspects the film’s author is striving for more than ‘mere entertainment’ then the film needs to be judged as such. There’s no doubt that Diao is a virtuoso filmmaker and there’s dazzling cinematography from Dong Jingsong (who also did Black Coal) but when you get to the end of a film not caring about the protagonist who we are meant to empathise with there is a problem. Maybe I’m wrong and Diao doesn’t care either.

Hu Ge (Zhou Zenong) is a classic noir protagonist: the police are after him; a gang is after him; a woman he probably shouldn’t trust offers to help him. I agree with the Variety reviewer when she says Zhou channels Robert Mitchum, he has a looming, self-contained presence. We know he’s a noir protagonist from the first shot where he lurks beneath an underpass at night and a woman in a red dress meets him. The stylisation makes for an absolute visual treat and the, at first, convoluted narrative means you have to be alert. A conclave of gangsters meet to learn about stealing mopeds and divvy up territory in a basement of a hotel; violence ensues. The absurdity of the situation suggests the influence of Tarantino but apparently Diao based the events of the film on news stories. Despite this, the ghost of the American director haunts the film, for me, whereas Diao would have been better channeling the aesthetic of Wong Kar-wai: there are some quite long sequences of Hu on a motorcycle with the woman that reminded me of Fallen Angels.

For a Chinese film The Wild Goose Lake does push boundaries of representing sexual behaviour (although I may have missed other boundary-pushing films): the woman, Liu Aiai (played by Taiwanese Kwei Lun-Mei), is a ‘bathing beauty’ on the titular lake, a euphemism for prostitute and she services Hu in an entirely unambiguous fashion. Whether, of course, this scene is actually seen in China (it opens in December) is open to question.

I will bother with Diao’s next film but it would be great if he shot a script that says something rather than just parade genre tropes albeit in an interesting way. The standfirst of Sight and Sound‘s review nailed it as an ‘exhilarating if skin-deep experience’.

Dogs Don’t Wear Pants (Koirat eivät käytä housuja, Finland-Latvia, 2019) – LIFF2

Finding life on the margins

Another film festival another Nordic film about grief – see Koko-di Koko-da. However Dogs Don’t Wear Pants doesn’t quite play out as expected. After a brilliant intro when protagonist Juha (Pekka Strang) is traumatised by loss, the narrative moves on a decade or so to find him still unable to function socially. He stumbles into a commercial BDSM dungeon and thinks he finds a way to reconnect with his loss.

Spoiler alert! It seems the film is going to suggest that Juha can be cured of his grief by his relationship with a dominatrix, Mona (Krista Kosonen), in the sense that it will take him to the ‘edge’ and so will recognise that his life is worth living after all. (Incidentally, Krista Kosonen’s appearance and icy demeanour reminded me of Major Kusanaga from Ghost in the Shell). However, co-writer and director J.-P. Valkeapää makes it far more interesting as he suggests the ‘perversions’ are actually potentially better than a bourgeois lifestyle; the moment Juha makes a key decision we are given a close-up of his discarded watch, a symbol of conspicuous consumption.

As is appropriate, many of the scenes are excruciating to watch (having had a tooth removed recently didn’t help my experience) though not sexually titillating. The widescreen compositions are often gorgeous, enhanced by the lurid lighting of the BDSM den. Characters are sometimes framed as if in the margins by doorways further enhancing the psychological position of the characters.

Juha has a young daughter, Elli; the intro is an inversion of Don’t Look Now‘s (UK-Italy, 1973) with the mother as the victim. A narrative strand deals with Elli’s ‘coming of age’ but it doesn’t investigate her trauma and my sympathies were more with her than her dad. She starts a relationship with a boy of her age but this, too, is fragmentary. Similarly, Mona’s motivation for her lifestyle is under-developed: on the one hand it could be argued she doesn’t need one, on the other, because she also seems to be traumatised given her tearful breakdown toward the end of the film, we do need an explanation. Also, I’m not sure the title works particularly well, as its quirkiness does not sum up the film. I also get sense that the male character development is deemed to be the important trajectory, whilst the females are ‘sounding boards’. I’m not saying all films have to be even-handed in terms of gender representation but because Dogs hints at backstories for the women it should develop them more.

Despite these criticisms, when the film is released (apparently September 2020 in the UK), if you’re not too squeamish, I recommend a viewing.

Ghost Tropic (Belguim-Netherlands, 2019) – LIFF1

Living By Night

My first screening at this year’s Leeds International Film Festival proved to be a treat. At festivals I tend to choose films that fit with the time I have available rather than choosing specific titles. Whilst this is not necessarily the best way to select viewings, if I had read the synopsis about this film (‘the gentle nocturnal odyssey of a cleaning lady through the streets of Brussels’) I might have demurred. In the event the film was a riveting journey that inverted the usual representation of the night as a place of threat.

Saadia Bentaïeb plays Khadija beautifully, the cleaning woman who falls asleep on the last metro and hasn’t the money to get a taxi home so has to walk. The picaresque narrative allows us to meet some denizens of the dark who are, of course, ordinary people. Writer-director Bas Devos chooses not to laden these encounters with significance, though it’s not without social comment. The image above of the tropical island is an advert that tells Khadija to ‘get lost’; it’s a brilliant double entendre for we can assume that she could never afford to visit such a place on holiday.

Cinematographer Grimm Vandekerckhove manages to make the dark city streets look fascinating; out of focus coloured lights (for example, cars’ brake lights) give an abstract beauty and Devos’ framing is often quite brilliant. In the metro, for example, Khadija seems to be in a small window on a wall and then the train enters the station and we understand our position in relation to her. It’s a way defamiliarising the night, just as its representation of the dark defies expectations. It’s shot on 16mm and, unsurprisingly given the light levels, is very grainy which works perfectly well except occasionally it appears to be pouring with rain such is the grain.

I was confused by a couple of things. Near the start Khadija’s at a jovial meeting where Congo is mentioned; suggesting the tropics and I wasn’t clear what was going on. And at the end, there’s a (presumably) fantasy sequence on a tropical beach, like the one in the ad: is it her younger self we see or her daughter, who she encounters on her journey home, in the future? On the soundtrack we occasionally hear (the sound design is quite brilliant – Boris Debackere) tropical birds and there is a ‘magic realist’ moment concerning a dog. My uncertainty about these scenes certainly didn’t detract from the film and ensured we understood Devos’ intention wasn’t as a documentarian.

Incidentally the film had the best credits at the end: a blank black screen, apart from ‘A film by’ in the top left hand corner, is then filled with names with gaps in between them. The gaps are then populated, one at a time, with the role the person took. Yes, a film is made by everyone involved.

Credit where it is due

Sorry We Missed You (UK-France-Belguim, 2019)

Do as you’re told in Tory Britain

I, Daniel Blake told it how it is in Tory Britain; as does Sorry We Missed You. Tory Britain is a place of exploitation, discrimination and a callous, uncaring state that treats working people as an underclass. MP Rees-Mogg’s recent remarks about the Grenfell disaster (the victims didn’t show common sense) is emblematic of how the Conservatives are unfit to rule. There’s only one way that compassionate people who vote Tory will perceive this film: they won’t believe it. That, of course, is a mistake as scriptwriter Paul Laverty does the research and everything in this film has a ‘truth’ which is moulded into a melodrama.

Director Ken Loach is most famous for Cathy Come Home, a 1966 BBC TV drama that led to the creation of the charity Shelter for homeless people. In those days of three television channels a significant proportion of the population watched the same programme at the same time and roughly 12 million people saw the drama (about 25% of the UK population at the time). Nowadays it’s virtually impossible to make anywhere near the same impact. That said, both of Loach’s last two films should have led to the same outrage of 50 years ago.

Sorry We Missed You dramatises the ‘flexible workforce’ beloved of Tory businesses because it reduces their costs and increases profitability (and reduces prices for consumers). However, the human cost to the workers and their families is hidden, except in liberal press and some Twitter circles; occasionally a tragedy reaches the BBC. For the first half hour of the film I felt I was watching a documentary (the content not the form of the film) as I learned nothing but once I became emotionally engaged with the family’s predicament the film turned into a heartbreaking melodrama (incidentally, once again used as a term of abuse in Mark Kermode’s otherwise reasonable review). The only false note in the film was the under-developed character of the ‘rebellious son’; he veered too much between surly and caring and there was no back story explaining his political awareness.

Typically for Loach’s films the mise en scene is a fairly ugly long lensed affair; he uses telephoto lenses that flatten the scene (so it looked like people were always about to be run over by passing vans in the depot) as a way of getting authentic performances. Moments of humour and lyricism are few but that’s not entirely inappropriate in a film that portrays what nine years of Tory government have done to the country.

The Florida Project (US, 2017)

The sunshine state

Sean Baker (he co-wrote and directed) manages to get sensational performances from the ‘little rascals’ who live in motels adjacent to Disney World; the title of the film was Disney’s original name for his theme park. The adults are excellent too even though they are mostly inexperienced; Baker apparently found Bria Vinaite on Instagram. Willem Dafoe, as the exasperated and paternalistic caretaker, integrates his performance with the rest of the cast perfectly. While the film isn’t only about performance, this ‘slice of life’ of a Florida underclass has a somewhat fragmentary narrative; not that that is necessarily a bad thing but some of slices are a bit thin. Key to its success, is the (apparent) authenticity of life on the margins. The motels are garish in appearance, they are trying to compete with the sickly sweetness of Disney World, and rundown on the inside.

Brooklynn Prince plays 6-year-old Moonee who is a ‘wild child’, like her mum (Vinaite), that wreaks havoc in the area. At one point, when giving a guided tour to a new arrival, she says, “We’re not allowed in here so let’s go in.” She then proceeds to cut the power. On one level she is appalling but, then again, she’s only six so cannot be held responsible for her upbringing. That’s Halley’s responsibility but their relationship is more like mischievous teenage girls. Halley hustles a living and relies upon Dafoe’s Bobby to help her out; not that she ever shows any gratitude. In some ways she is a monster, her treatment of an estranged friend for example, but Baker never demonises her; these are people on the edge who graft for what they can get. Vinaite captures the stubborn self-absorption of a child-woman perfectly; I remember trying to teach similar characters, it bordered on the impossible.

What’s lacking in the film, and that’s not its fault as it wasn’t its purpose, is social context. Bobby’s boss gives an inkling about the way the poor are treated when, on his occasional visits, he rules to roost with contempt. The caretaker’s deference shows he’s standing on eggshells so as not to offend the man with power. In addition, the virtuoso shot at the end makes it clear that Baker is making a social comment. However, as is the nature of ‘slices of life’, the power structures that lead to lives being restricted in poverty, are mostly ignored.

On the other hand, it is better that such lives are dramatised (as in Leave No Trace) than not at all and Baker is clearly a talent to watch. His mise en scene perfectly captures the candy floss environs of lives that could be bitter but are generally shown to be full of fun.