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ORWAV Top 100 Films of the 2010s

December 15, 2019

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One of the websites I contribute to has been counting down its top 100 films of the decade. See below links for more detail. Note, I wrote the analyses for the following films: First ReformedUnder the SkinThe Tree of LifeThe Great Beauty, and Knight of Cups.


The Irishman

December 12, 2019

The Irishman (2019)
Director: Martin Scorsese
Actors: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci

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Synopsis: The life of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), an Irish-American truck driver from Philadelphia, who finds himself catapulted into mob life when befriending mafia guy, Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). From here, Sheeran is commissioned to work with famed Teamsters union boss, Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). This tension between his union ties and mob loyalties leads to Sheeran’s greatest personal and professional dilemma…

Review: Although I have a real problem with the de-ageing conceit used in The Irishman – which sullies the first third of the film’s dramatic integrity – Martin Scorsese seems to transcend these self-inflicted technical knots to fashion what is unquestionably one of his finest films. It’s almost valedictory Scorsese here. There are the same character types, the same themes, the same rise and full structure, and the same macroscopic and kinaesthetic style we’ve come to see in his other gangster epics. And yet, perhaps it’s this film’s inherently reflective and funereal tone, especially in its long final stretch, that raises it a level above Goodfellas and Casino, which this could be seen as the concluding act of a trilogy for.

The structuring of the film is particularly masterful. We begin with the ironic framing voiceover as the pathos-ridden, ageing Frank recounts his life story in the middle of a humdrum retirement home, and then that story flits between the beginning of his transition from delivery driver to mob lackey, to a much later road trip with his friend and mob boss, Russell Buffalino, which ties up the threads of Frank’s ‘rise’ narrative trajectory and provides him with his seminal moment of personal conflict.

As ever with Scorsese, it is often the little details – be it dialogue, period design, soundtrack choice, glide of the camera, or use of motif – that enriches the story he is telling. Perhaps the finest scene in the film is the tense stand off between rival union bosses, Jimmy Hoffa and Tony Provenzano, in a deserted restaurant in Florida. The power politicking between both men (which is a microcosm of the tensions brought about by mafia interference in the union movement in the ’50s and ’60s) is brilliantly brought to life through electric performances by Al Pacino and Stephen Graham respectively. Their argument for the most part centres around the hilarious subpoint about the etiquette of making people wait, but, of course, in this seemingly minor non sequitur there are major clues about the respective men’s value systems and achilles heels.

Talking about Pacino and Graham, one of the great delights of The Irishman is the all-star cast. It’s full of the old Scorsese favourites – Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel-  plus newbies who fit snugly into his canvas such as Ray Romano and Bobby Canavale. De Niro – who was in his mid-seventies when the film was made, thus could conceivably play the late-life Frank Sheeran and possibly pass as the late middle-age Sheeran at the centre of the Hoffa-Mafia stand-off – also incarnates the young thirtysomething Sheeran when he is first spotted by Russell Bufalino and begins his rise. This incarnation is made manifest by the latest de-ageing technology, and, although things have moved on since the days of Tom Hanks in The Polar Express, it is still decidedly ropy and a needless distraction from audience immersion in the story-world. The eyes and face may theoretically look younger, but plastered onto De Niro’s clearly stout, stooping and solid old man’s body, it makes for a jarring effect and simply looks unreal and artificial. No matter what anyone says, I do not think that CGI will ever be able to replicate the same effect as having an actual unvarnished human in front of the camera. For example, the crucial early scene where Angelo tells the young Frank that he could have killed him for unwittingly bombing his business is completely tarnished by the fact that De Niro isn’t the youthful buck this scene clearly needs him to be. The movies have always found it easier to age a young man (think Orson Welles in Citizen Kane or Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain), but it struggles to work the other way.

Still, once the film moves into a timeframe where De Niro is playing somewhat closer to his age, it all becomes a lot more convincing, and the narrative hots up anyway. The film’s pièce de résistance though is its remarkably mournful final act. Scorsese has often been accused in the past of being too closely aligned to the narcotic highs of his protagonists to fully reproach their moral repugnancy, but the ending here seems to suggest these old gangsters don’t find peace at the end of their lives but simply emptiness or that their demons end catching up with them. He foregrounds this with captions throughout the film informing the viewer what the grisly fate is for all the story’s minor players. And the film’s slow and closing moments are remarkably ashen, as Frank’s tragic isolation is complete with all his contemporaries dying of undignified illnesses, his family denying him, and the police and religious fathers unable to extract any late-life recompense from him. In many ways, this feels an apt end point for Scorsese’s career long interest in narratives that detail the price that comes from a life of sin. (December 2019)

Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese

December 7, 2019

Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese (2019)
Director: Martin Scorsese

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Synopsis: A part factual, part fictional documentation of, and reflection on, Bob Dylan’s 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue tour.

Review: “What remains of that tour to this day? Nothing. Ashes.” So opines Bob Dylan in this really lovely tribute to his 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue tour to low-key venues in the American northeast and Canada over a series of months. The canny thing about Martin Scorsese’s treatment here is not merely the documentation of said tour, but how Scorsese seems to intrinsically understand and revel in its ethos. Hence the intuitive decision to make the execution of his film an aesthetic mirror of the tour it documents: lo-fi, shaggy dog, partly planned out and partly made up on the fly.

For this observer anyway, Scorsese’s clearly tagged on fictionalised additions to the history of the tour (the Steven Van Dorp director figure, some of the Super 8 pastiches of life on the road, and Sharon Stone’s ‘story’ about being plucked from the obscurity of teenage fandom to help with the tour) are probably less satisfying than just the raw ingredients of the tour and how it had been originally documented anyway. Outside of his shamanistic flourishes, Scorsese undeniably manages the material cleverly though, moving from focused impressions of some of the main players around Dylan on the tour – Joan Baez, Scarlet Rivera and Allen Ginsberg to name but a few – to Dylan’s actual live performances.

Scorsese – someone who has already avidly catalogued his love of music, and Dylan in particular, on film – seems to be positioning the Rolling Thunder Revue as this turning point from Dylan as the young folk star who had a certain mystique about him, to the more mature performer who found his love of the open road and touring – something he was to carry on for the subsequent four decades as Scorsese humorously makes reference to in a closing (and necessarily elongated) caption.

But it’s the ragtag spirit of Dylan and the revue itself that Scorsese nails best of all. It was a real troupe of folk performers, classical musicians, bohemians, and hangers on, all rotating around the gravitational centre of Dylan. Allen Ginsberg’s presence is especially well elucidated by Scorsese. What is initially presented as Ginsberg trying to capitalise on the zeitgeist of the revue, is later tinged in pathos as his poetry readings are marginalised when the growing commercial success and framework of the gigs deems them expendable. What transmits is Ginsberg perhaps sensing something of the Beat culture about Dylan’s revue conception – after all, Dylan actually drives his tour bus, echoing Ken Kesey immortalised in Thomas Wolfe’s classic Beat road trip novel, ‘The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test’. Dylan and Ginsberg even share perhaps the most moving scene of the film when Ginsberg takes Dylan to Jack Kerouac’s grave where they share a moment reading Kerouac’s poetry. It’s a lovely moment of Ginsberg passing something of a generational baton onto Dylan, and attests to Scorsese’s perceptive conceptualisation of the Rolling Thunder story. (December 2019)


December 4, 2019

Non-Fiction (2019)
Director: Olivier Assayas
Actors: Guillaume Canet, Vincent Macaigne, Juliette Binoche

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Synopsis: Alain (Guillaume Canet) and Léonard (Vincent Macaigne) are, respectively, a publisher and writer both struggling with the demands of the digital age. Alain is finding his publishing company accelerating into electronic forms of media, while Léonard is struggling to get his latest novel published by Alain, on top of managing his complicated personal life.

Review: Olivier Assayas can’t quite go ‘three for three’ with this, his latest attempt to shine a light on a creative industry’s travails with an increasingly modernised, digital world. After the actors of Clouds of Sils Maria and the fashionistas of Personal Shopper, the focus here is on the movers and shakers of an illustrious Parisian publishing house and its tentative steps into the digital market.

While the focus on the politics of the publishing house and how the written word is having its most dramatic shake-up in centuries is engrossing, the personal dramas around that canvas are a touch insipid. At times it felt like a parody of bourgeois French cinema – there are innumerable sequences of characters pontificating, eating, drinking wine, and hopping in and out of bed with each other – and the focus on the comically transparent autofictions of the hapless writer, Léonard, mimicked classic Woody Allen.

Probably the most successful element of the film’s musings on the ironic interface of an old industry with the new technological age is in a late scene where Léonard is asked about whether his new novel can have significant mileage in the new audiobook market. Juliette Binoche’s character, Selena, is asked if she thinks it would be a good idea if Juliette Binoche, the world famous actress, might be worth approaching for this endeavour. It’s the sort of telling postmodern conceit Assayas used to much greater effect in Clouds of Sils Maria, but here it only serves to highlight the relative sterility of the rest of this film’s rhetorical gesturing. (December 2019)

Knives Out

December 1, 2019

Knives Out (2019)
Director: Rian Johnson
Actors: Ana de Armas, Daniel Craig, Chris Evans

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Synopsis: Private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) investigates the possible murder of family patriarch and famed crime novelist, Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer).

Review: Although witty and proficient, I don’t quite share in the effusive consensus gathering around Knives Out, seeing it, ironically, as an upscale version of that other whodunnit that came out this year centred around a slain patriarch also played by Christopher Plummer, the execrable Netflix film, Murder Mystery.

Knives Out’s most distinctive feature is its overwhelming sense of its own cleverness. I wouldn’t go as far as to say it is smug, but Rian Johnson has clearly fashioned a very playful whodunnit. There’s the rogue’s gallery of eccentric family members, a narrative that loops round the key events on the night of the ‘murder’, and Johnson attempts to find a visual language to match the wry material with sharp cuts and extreme close ups of his garish players.

With many films this ironic and a deconstruction of their genre (the Coens’ Burn After Reading springs to mind), the offshoot is naturally that it does lack a little on the suspense and thrills front. For example, as the reveal about the South American helper Marta’s role in the night’s events comes so early, you know there must be one final twist in the film’s climactic moments.

Unsurprisingly, the film’s most enjoyable moments come from its ensemble of Hollywood faces. Daniel Craig gives a warm performance as the sleuth, and his purposely mannered American accent is surely a pastiche of Kevin Spacey’s signature Frank Underwood drawl? The depiction of Michael Shannon’s alt-right teenage son with the mobile phone fetish is amusing too – particularly the reference to his masturbatory tendencies during one replayed scene on the night of the ‘murder’.

It’s an entertaining two hours for sure, and makes an improvement on the aforementioned and risibly bad Murder Mystery, but it’s not the quite the best in this subgenre of bourgeois family farces often centred around a will reading. To my mind, two of the most enjoyable films of that category of the last 20 years or so have been Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen and Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. Knives Out is not as dramatic as the former, nor as idiosyncratic as the latter. (November 2019)

Raging Bull

November 17, 2019

Raging Bull (1980)
Director: Martin Scorsese
Actors: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Cathy Moriarty

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Synopsis: The life of American middleweight boxing stalwart Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro) from his volatile ’40s heyday, in and out of the ring, to his washed-up days as a lounge bar entertainer in the ’50s and ’60s.

Review: Raging Bull is a good film but not a great film, and I can’t quite go with the critical consensus regarding its exalted place in the upper pantheon of Martin Scorsese’s filmography. This reticence comes from the sense that the film pushes somewhat of a limited thesis (that Jake LaMotta was essentially a paranoid macho fighting machine), especially compared to Scorsese’s far greater existential portraits in Mean StreetsTaxi Driver, and The Last Temptation of Christ. And the social tapestries of Goodfellas and Casino are far richer and more involving than the world he builds around LaMotta here too. The moment that clinched this reading for me was when that classic Scorsese motif of blood and the colour red, used to signify the dichotomy of sin and guilt across his best films, felt less persuasive and epic in comparison when LaMotta’s blood splatters the ropes in slow motion as his career starts to take a nosedive with his 1951 defeat to Sugar Ray Robinson. Yes, Jake LaMotta is flawed and a monster of his own making, but there is nowhere near the nuance and narcotic rush dramatised with similar Scorsese antiheroes – Charlie, Travis Bickle, Rupert Pupkin, Henry Hill, Sam Rothstein, and Jordan Belfort, to name but a few.

Robert De Niro’s performance as LaMotta has rightly earned a lot of plaudits, and it’s a nicely controlled turn that goes somewhat against the ripe ingredients of the character. That said, an actor’s physical transformation and weight loss/gain per se has never hugely flattered me, and there is something conceited and telegraphed about the pathos of the ageing, overweight LaMotta that book-ends the film, even though it is obviously biographically true to the story.

The best parts of the film come from Scorsese’s own exhilarating direction. Again, much of the film commentary on Raging Bull’s boxing scenes has fallen into received generalisation – referencing the supposed ‘realism’ of the fighting – whereas, if anything, I see it as a triumph of Scorsese’s expressionistic direction, and how he turns pugilism into something artful and anti-realistic with the purposefully hyperbolic sound effects and exaggerated defencelessness of the various defeated boxers.

The two best sequences of the film are both early on. There’s the wickedly funny opening fight that symbolises the chaos that accompanies LaMotta wherever he goes, when a bout he loses despite practically killing his opponent ends in a mass riot, replete with bodies bizarrely flying through the air and the compere comically trying to continue with his announcement amid the mayhem. Then there’s LaMotta’s early coveting and courtship of Vickie (a great performance by Cathy Moriarty). Scorsese’s swooping tracking shots affect LaMotta’s devouring gaze over her, and their opening date which moves in awkwardly predatory manner from LaMotta picking her up at her swimming pool hangout (she’s symbolically separated from him by a caged fence) before inevitably moving to his bedroom over the course of the day. It’s by far the most thrilling and dramatically effective depiction of LaMotta’s testerone-inflected hamartia that Scorsese otherwise fails to three-dimensionalise quite as lucidly in the remainder of the film. (November 2019)

Le Royaume des Fées

November 16, 2019

Le Royaume des Fées (1903)
Director: Georges Méliès

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Synopsis: In a fairytale land, a princess is abducted, and a group of heroic men have to descend into the sea and an ominous castle to save her.

Review: One of Georges Méliès’ most mesmeric of fantasias, Le Royaume des Fées (the Kingdom of Fairies), finds a suitably fablistic narrative to compliment Méliès’ early, imaginative explorations into the possibilities of cinema.

Famed for connecting cinema to the practices of magic and illusion, Méliès’ Le Royaume des Fées is a showcase of delirious set design, clever jump cuts and other such cinematographic conceits, to explore the story of a princess needing to be saved from a wicked witch in a mysterious, fantasy realm. The fact Méliès coloured his film (à la The Wizard of Oz, 1939) adds to the film’s sensorial quality, and there’s also the purposeful use of framing to add an air of gallows humour to the story. This is at its best when the male heroes’ boat capsizes on its rescue mission, and they enter an underwater kingdom where various creatures (lobsters, crabs, octopuses) whisk them away to meet Neptune. It’s an exquisite image from an exquisite film – surely one of Méliès’ best. (November 2019)

**Incidentally, I saw this film with a live orchestral accompaniment from The Arranz Ensemble at Lyme Regis’ Marine Theatre. The skill and imagination of their arrangement certainly added to the overall experience.**