Drama

Valley of the Gods (2019, Lech Majewski)

Valley of the Gods is a cautionary tale. If you’re going to make a combination of Citizen Kane—with either actual footage or a recreated shot—and then a bunch of vague Kubrick nods, including Keir Dullea (arguably in the film’s best performance) as a snippy butler and a HAL while doing a retelling of the Navajo creation myth set on the Navajo Nation Reservation near Monument Valley and the Valley of the Gods… I don’t know, make sure you’ve got enough money your cinematographers (director Majewski and Pawel Tybora are credited) are able to light the digital video well and maybe, even more importantly, hire CGI people who are good at their jobs. The third act of Gods should be an outrageous disaster but instead it’s a whimper of one, as each of the film’s four “plots” fails.

The driving force is the Navajo creation myth retelling, which has Steven Skyler—who is not good—getting drunk and sad because an unseen industrialist is going to mine uranium on the Reservation and pay off the tribe. So like any drunk man who is sad, he goes home to girlfriend Owee Rae and kind of tries to rape her but, you know, they’re dating and he’s drunk so what’s her problem.

So he goes off and forces himself on a rock.

Majewski—who also writes, co-produces, and co-production designs (I feel like this one is where he’s got real strength)—has a lot of interesting writing choices. They’re bad, yes, but they’re also exaggerated tropes. I forgot to mention Skyler’s got some kind of problem with Rae because she won’t bear him a son or something. It’s not an actual subplot because making it a subplot might require giving Rae some lines. She gets like two. But a nude singing scene because, you know, life’s pretty empty otherwise.

With Skyler’s story, Majewski’s writing more or less gets a pass because he’s trying to do the creation story. The film opens with the creation story in text, which is way too obvious but Majewski’s always way too obvious. If there’s something good he could make better by not explaining it, he spends six minutes explaining it. Like why is top-billed Josh Hartnett driving out into the Valley of the Gods, parking, getting a writing desk out of his SUV and sitting down to write in fountain pen on special paper—I’m not looking up the term—the point is Hartnett’s a luddite artisté writer without a cell phone who’s a dedicated… wait for it… ad writer in L.A. He hates the life, as one would imagine his coworkers hate their lives too when they have to fax him—it’s okay because he’s got a fax machine in his car—but at least he’s got wife Jaime Ray Newman. Except she leaves him because he’s not exciting and he’s overdramatic with his writing needs. She dumps him for a hang-gliding instructor. Maybe. I hope. It’s be something good so let’s pretend.

Newman’s terrible.

Hartnett holds it together okay for a bit but once he’s in John Malkovich’s CGI Citizen Kane castle, it’s all over. Simultaneously we meet Bérénice Marlohe, whose son has been taken away for some reason—I wasn’t paying close enough attention to the teensy-weensy visual detail explaining it; Majewski can’t stop with the narration so long as it’s about Hartnett being sad about being a White guy or everyone talking about Malkovich being the “richest man on the planet” (Majewski grew up speaking Polish… does that phrase sound less insipid in Polish?), but when it’s establishing Marlohe, he’s got no time. Doesn’t matter, she’s basically a single night sex partner for Malkovich, who brings in a different woman every night to pretend to be his dead wife. Still alive, but like, his dead wife.

Because Valley of the Gods is all about the healthy relationships between men and women. As long as that healthy relationship is women pampering men—seriously, the stuff with Newman having to coddle Hartnett’s ego is painful and seems way too based on reality.

Malkovich is fine. Like, he’s in a hood a bunch of it so they could use a double, but when he gets his big scene it’s fine. He can act through the bad. Especially in close-up, which he gets, unlike most everyone else. Hartnett gets the wrong close-ups—he does get a solid rant scene at one point; shame the dialogue’s crap. It’s at his psychiatrist’s. John Rhys-Davies plays the psychiatrist and he blathers nonsense at Hartnett to set up the plot (Hartnett’s supposed to do absurd things, hence the desk in the desert, ruining it being an interesting vision) and he does sound vaguely authoritative but I think it’s because Rhys-Davies is Freud-ing up the accent. But their appointment is sort of when all reality goes out the window. It’d be more believable if Rhy-Davies were just some guy Hartnett bothered into listening to his problems as opposed to a mental health professional who recommends his depressed patient risk his life multiple times.

There’s a lot you could do in Valley of the Gods and make it work by just not being nonsensical about it.

But Majewski doesn’t.

For a while it seems like absolutely gorgeous production design—presumably a lot of it mixing in CGI and doing it very well (before the finale does it very poorly)—exquisite editing (Eliot Ems and Norbert Rudzik), good photography from Majewski and Tybora (the Valley exteriors are appropriately gorgeous and foreboding), and the script not being too terrible (yet)—it seems like Valley might make it. Then Newman’s second scene ruins it and it’s just a slide down.

Marlohe’s bad but maybe it’s Majewski’s fault—he doesn’t direct the actors, which all of them except Malkovich and Dullea apparently need because the writing’s so wanting….

Take out all the talking, entirely rescore it, and fix the inept CGI and who knows. Pretty might be enough.

Though it does move pretty well for two hours, I guess.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Lech Majewski; directors of photography, Majewski and Pawel Tybora; edited by Eliot Ems and Norbert Rudzik; music by Jan A.P. Kaczmarek; production designers, Christopher R. DeMuri and Majewski; costume designers, Ewa Kochanska, Carolyn Leone, and Ewa Minge; produced by Majewski and Filip Jan Rymsza; released by Well Go USA Entertainment.

Starring Steven Skyler (Grey Horse), Josh Hartnett (John Ecas), Bérénice Marlohe (Karen Kitson), Keir Dullea (Ulim), John Malkovich (Wes Tauros), Joseph Runningfox (Third Eye), Jaime Ray Newman (Laura Ecas), and John Rhys-Davies (Dr. Hermann), and John A. Lorenz (Bird Face), and Owee Rae (Sweet Grass).


Cool Hand Luke (1967, Stuart Rosenberg)

Maybe a third of the way into Cool Hand Luke, the film all of a sudden starts getting really good. It’s when Jo Van Fleet makes her appearance, which provides the film both its single best acting—Newman and Van Fleet are exquisite in the scene—and also director Rosenberg showing he’s actually got a handle on the film’s style. Luke’s got an excess of style—about half of the more ambitious shots work (though they always look great thanks to cinematographer Conrad Hall)—and it’s not clear to Van Fleet’s exit whether or not Rosenberg actually knows what he’s doing.

Unfortunately, even though it’s initially a big positive Rosenberg’s got ambitions, the lumpy second half (and especially the third act) show such a lack of ambition—outside the forced Jesus symbolism, which Rosenberg feigns big but feigns empty. Rosenberg goes on to press with the Jesus stuff without exactly having prepared for it, which also ends up being a problem for editor Sam O'Steen. O’Steen and Hall enable most of the great early filmmaking stuff, but once Rosenberg gives up on anything but religiously themed production design and what not… well, Hall can still make it look good, but O’Steen’s slicing at… soft-boiled eggs. It’s hit and miss.

It also doesn’t help Lalo Schifrin’s first half score seems entirely disconnected from his second half score. Luke’s from a very strange place in time, when you weren’t going to have leading man Paul Newman getting accused of glorying criminals but you also were going to acknowledge criminals were people too (as long as they’re White and it’s the late 1940s and there’s no such thing as prison rape or or beatings or even bullying). Rosenberg’s initial approach is to acknowledge the unspoken through the, let’s just say, mise-en-scène. But instead of actual engaging with that unspoken in the second half, when the film very directly says it wants to question the idea of humanity and empathy and brotherhood and whatever… it just cops out and becomes a disjointed Jesus parable with some amusing chase sequences throughout.

The stuff in the beginning, with Schrifin’s score turning the road gang vehicles driving Newman and his fellow prisoners to and from the prison camp into a nightmare scene… it doesn’t go anywhere. It doesn’t figure in. It’s just Rosenberg flexing. And he’s got some good flexes throughout; how could he not with this cast and crew. Newman, Hall, O’Steen, Schifrin, George Kennedy, Strother Martin, and the entire supporting cast. Rosenberg’s able to mix a lot of acting styles, like gravel-voiced straight shooter J.D. Cannon and mumblecore Harry Dean Stanton. The direction of the cast is impressive. It’s just the scenes aren’t great. Not after a while.

When Rosenberg’s got to figure out how to show Newman alienated and abandoned by masculinity and what not… Luke just shrugs. It does whatever it can to avoid Newman. It’s like a character study until it decides it doesn’t want to get too close to that character.

And instead there’s a bunch of Christian imagery. Only not assembled in any meaningful way, it’s just another gimmick for Rosenberg to utilize. He doesn’t seem to be malicious about it. He’s not covering for any perceived lack in the picture… which is kind of the problem. Rosenberg’s got some moves, a great crew, a fantastic cast, and a script in need. He gets about as far as you can without being able to fix the problem and then throws in some crosses to get to the finish line.

It’s a bummer.

Some great acting from Newman though. Just great. Like, Kennedy’s good and whatnot, but Newman’s big swings hit.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Stuart Rosenberg; screenplay by Donn Pearce and Frank Pierson, based on the novel by Pearce; director of photography, Conrad L. Hall; edited by Sam O’Steen; music by Lalo Schifrin; costume designer, Howard Shoup; produced by Gordon Carroll; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Paul Newman (Lucas Jackson), George Kennedy (Dragline), Jo Van Fleet (Arletta Jackson), Strother Martin (The Captain), Morgan Woodward (Walking Boss), Luke Askew (Boss Paul), Robert Donner (Boss Shorty), Clifton James (Carr), John McLiam (Boss Keen), Andre Trottier (Boss Popler), Charles Tyner (Boss Higgins), J.D. Cannon (Society Red), Lou Antonio (Koko), Robert Drivas (Loudmouth Steve), Marc Cavell (Rabbitt), Richard Davalos (Blind Dick), Warren Finnerty (Tattoo), Dennis Hopper (Babalugats), Wayne Rogers (Gambler), Dean Stanton (Tramp), Ralph Waite (Alibi), Buck Kartalian (Dynamite), Joe Don Baker (Fixer), James Gammon (Sleepy), Anthony Zerbe (Dog Boy), and Joy Harmon (Lucille).


Signs (2002, M. Night Shyamalan)

It’s impossible to overstate what a profoundly, risibly bad movie Shyamalan has made with Signs. As the end credits started rolling, after the most disappointing “epilogue” Shyamalan could’ve come up with—it’s not just disappointing, it’s also pointless (pointless is the probably the best adjective to describe scenes in Signs)—my wife joked the movie took two weeks to film. To which I responded, “Thirteen and a half days longer than it took to write.” Because even with all the bad in Signs—and there’s so much bad—the writing is the worst.

And Shyamalan does this non-committal “camera as POV” thing—cinematographer Tak Fujimoto should be ashamed of himself for enabling Shyamalan to do it and embarrassed with how poorly he shoots the thing; Signs looks terrible–so, in other words, there’s a lot of competition for what’s worst in Signs. Shyamalan’s direction of the talking heads scenes—and there so many talking heads scenes because Shyamalan, who’s ego is literally oozing from every grain of film–involves characters almost looking directly into the camera but then just a little diagonally. Shyamalan is going for something with Signs, with his very intentional direction, his very intentional casting of himself as the guy who kills star Mel Gibson’s wife in a traffic accident (Shyamalan was asleep at the wheel) and vehicular manslaughter isn’t a thing and it just turns reverend Gibson into an atheist (but they never say the a-word because while Signs is definitely a millimeter thinly veiled Christian movie, there’s still the veil and it’s never going to get confrontational about it). Also… Shyamalan wrote the movie, so he did kill the wife.

Symbolism. Pass it on. Like the dog tchotchkes at the end to remind the viewer there are dogs, even if everyone forgot about them because they don’t matter because Signs is insipid.

Signs is full of symbolism but not really full because there’s not much because Shyamalan gets frequently bored with things like mise en scène because there’s better things to do like write the awful scenes between Gibson and his family. I went into Signs at least thinking Gibson would get through it unscathed (performance-wise). No. No. Not at all. It’s a godawful performance. He is incapable of pretending to be a former reverend, a widow, a husband, a father, a brother, and a farmer. The scenes with Gibson and kids Rory Culkin (who’s kind of terrible; it’s not his fault, Shyamalan seems to be having him do a Macaulay impression circa Uncle Buck but he’s still bad) and Abigail Breslin, who gets terrible material and terrible direction, but is still phenomenal. Shyamalan can’t figure out how to direct her because she’s not terrible like the rest of his cast.

Though, not Joaquin Phoenix. He’s leagues better than Gibson, though it helps Phoenix’s character is a dope. Gibson’s ostensibly functional enough to get to this point in his life—whereas Phoenix apparently always had Gibson to lean on—yet Gibson is real dumb. Real dumb.

Other bad things about Signs? Cherry Jones. She’s awful. Ted Sutton is so bad SAG should’ve shut the production down. Bad editing from Barbara Tulliver; Tulliver’s editing, cut for cut, is probably even worse than Fujimoto’s photography. Tulliver—presumably unintentionally—screws up all of Shyamalan’s jump scares. Larry Fulton’s production design is bad.

James Newton Howard’s score, while inexplicably a complete Bernard Herrmann Hitchcock rip-off (oh, wait, was Signs in the middle of Shyamalan being the new Hitchcock era), and poorly utilized, isn’t poorly composed. It’s competent, just misapplied. Everything else is incompetent and misapplied.

I was looking through Rodale for a good, fresh adjective to describe Signs but I think vapid does the job best. It’s worse than I expected it to be, which is saying a lot, but it also surprised me. I had no idea Gibson would so spectacularly fail or Phoenix would be—with a lot of conditions—so much better. And I guess Shyamalan managed to be inventively terrible, it’s just he’s a pointless kind of inventively terrible.

Oh, you know what… there’s the word.

Puerile.

Signs is puerile.

CREDITS

Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan; director of photography, Tak Fujimoto; edited by Barbara Tulliver; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, Larry Fulton; costume designer, Ann Roth; produced by Frank Marshall, Sam Mercer, and Shyamalan; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Mel Gibson (Graham Hess), Joaquin Phoenix (Merrill Hess), Rory Culkin (Morgan Hess), Abigail Breslin (Bo Hess), Patricia Kalember (Colleen Hess), Cherry Jones (Officer Paski), Ted Sutton (SFC Cunningham), Merritt Wever (Tracey Abernathy), and M. Night Shyamalan (Ray Reddy).


The Hustler (1961, Robert Rossen)

It’s an hour into The Hustler before the film offers any real information about protagonist Paul Newman. We’ve seen Newman and mentor slash manager Myron McCormick pool hustle their way across the North American continent, getting Newman to New York City so he can play the best pool player in the world, Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). And Newman does play Gleason. In this beautifully shot, acted, and especially edited twenty-five plus hour pool game between the young upstart and the assured master. McCormick pleads with Newman to remember their plan—ten grand and out—but Newman’s just too cocky.

When Gleason beats him, thirty-five minutes into a two hour and fifteen minute picture, we don’t even get to see Newman lose. He just see him lost. Past lost. We’re left to imagine how he reacted to hours of losing, while Gleason—and his bank, George C. Scott—grew bored beating Newman. McCormick sits quietly devastated while Newman drunkenly lashes out and crumbles from exhaustion.

Scene.

But actually prologue. The Hustler doesn’t really start until after Newman’s snuck out on McCormick and is working to get himself lost in the city. At the bus terminal (to dump his belongs in a locker), he meets Piper Laurie and tries to pick her up. It’s complicated and he’s got to wait until she’s quite drunk, but he manages to do it. Only for her to rebuff him at the door to her apartment; “you’re too hungry,” she tells him. So off Newman shuffles into the anonymous city, finding a room, trying to play some pool (but he’s now famous for losing to Gleason and can’t).

The initial pickup scene—with Laurie simultaneously softened and steeled to Newman’s advances and flirtations—is just as phenomenal as the pool game. It’s the first time we’ve gotten to see Newman act outside the hustler bravado. It’s the first time we’ve seen a woman in the film. It’s the first time director Rossen and editor Dede Allen have done a conversation outside the pool hall—and they use a similar but amplified editing rhythm. Now there are jump cuts, exclamation points focusing on Newman or Laurie. Rossen and Allen keep with this editing style going forward, even after Newman gets back to the pool table. After a freely roaming narrative distance in the first forty minutes, once Laurie arrives, Rossen focuses and refocuses it forcibly. Occasionally harshly. Rossen’s evolving methods to handling the narrative distance parallel Newman’s character development, which doesn’t even start when he meets Laurie the first time. We’ve got to wait another twenty or whatever minutes until McCormick tracks him down.

And then, an hour into the film, both Laurie and the audience find out we haven’t got the slightest idea about Newman as a person. Laurie stands silent, frozen, crying, as she listens to Newman berate McCormick and cast him out. The reality of their “romance,” with Newman living with Laurie and them filling their days with liquor then sex, hits her and breaks her. Did Newman hustle her? Laurie’s got a limp from a childhood case of polio and it’s 1961 so she’s seen as broken—honestly, it’s an indictment of 1961 the word “crippled” didn’t fall out of use after this film—but Newman doesn’t make her feel that way.

At least until she’s now got to wonder if he’s entirely full of shit.

But then Newman hustles in the wrong pool hall and all of a sudden he’s entirely dependent on Laurie. She’s even slowing down on the boozing, with Newman initially reluctantly but then more earnestly following suit. It’s this whole second story, with its own rhythm and feel—all about urban isolation and loneliness and desperation and connection—and when it ties into the prologue, it’s like the apple. When Newman runs into George C. Scott while out on a liquor run for he and Laurie, he finds the snake. Scott thinks he’s too cocky to ever amount to anything but is still talented enough to bank roll for certain jobs.

In one of the quieter tragic twists, once Newman’s found some humility (and humanity), Scott’s the only place he can go to get real work. And bringing in Scott, who’s more than willing to break Newman to make him fit the mold, is what sets everyone on the path to destruction.

The last third or so of The Hustler is just watching Scott crush Newman and Laurie’s tentative, desperate hold on their reality. Laurie has to endure Scott’s intentional cruelty as well as Newman’s slow corruption; it’s pretty easy to corrupt Newman it turns out, there just needs to be booze around. The foundation of Newman and Laurie’s relationship is loving not being sober. It’s loving being loose enough to get free from responsibility. What makes it all even worse is Scott’s already given Newman a character evaluation and told him how he’s going to fail and Newman can’t get off that track. The difference is he’s now got Laurie with him, bringing her along on his first job for Scott; they’re going to the Kentucky Derby to play skeazy blue blood Murray Hamilton. Hamilton likes hustling hustlers at pool and Scott thinks Newman’s got a shot.

The film says a whole bunch about masculinity, toxic masculinity, boozing, sex, romance, money. It doesn’t have much to say about pool. Gleason’s only in the bookend pool games and ends up with an exceptionally subtle, appropriately devastating arc about what it means to have talent.

Great performances from everyone; it’s Newman’s show but Laurie’s the essential. So much of the film plays out on she and Newman’s faces, every expression has to be perfect. Scott’s amazing. Gleason and McCormick are excellent. The Hustler is definitely a “uses up all the superlatives” film. Allen’s edited, Eugen Schüfftan’s photography, Kenyon Hopkins’s music—whoever came up with the titles—it’s a technical masterpiece. I mean, it’s a masterpiece overall—Sidney Carroll and Rossen’s script is singular—the film’s constantly wowing; it’s exhilarating.

And, simultaneously, an abject downer.

It’s so good.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Robert Rossen; screenplay by Sidney Carroll and Rossen, based on the novel by Walter Tevis; director of photography, Eugen Schüfftan; edited by Dede Allen; music by Kenyon Hopkins; production designer, Harry Horner; costume designer, Ruth Morley; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Paul Newman (Eddie Felson), Piper Laurie (Sarah Packard), George C. Scott (Bert Gordon), Myron McCormick (Charlie Burns), Murray Hamilton (Findley), and Jackie Gleason (Minnesota Fats).


High Tide (1987, Gillian Armstrong)

During High Tide’s final twist, I began to wonder just how different the film would be with different music. Sometimes Peter Best’s score is fine—or even good—sometimes it’s very much a product of its time and using way too much saxophone. The film’s biggest melodrama beat, where it commits to just being a melodrama about long-lost mom Judy Davis reuniting with daughter-who-thought-she-was-dead Claudia Karvan, the music utterly flops. It’s a questionable sequence at best—director Armstrong and writer Laura Jones have completely lost any sense of narrative distance or perspective by this point in the film—but it Best’s accompanying music just makes it silly.

Doesn’t help the scenes immediately following are basically a rapid-fire montage to get the characters through their difficult “thinking and feeling” responses, skipping Davis altogether and giving Karvan yet another disagreement with grandmother and guardian Jan Adele. What’s even stranger is the film takes place in a very finite time period—a week and a couple days, yet sometimes it’ll seem like far more time has passed than could’ve, particularly with Davis’s romance with local boy Colin Friels.

It’s all a shame because the first act is excellent. Davis comes to this small-town on tour; she’s a backup singer and dancer for an Elvis impersonator. Little does she know daughter Karvan is living there with Adele in a mobile home park. Karvan’s aware of Davis’s presence almost immediately. The town’s only got one entertainment hall, split between the family friendly and the adults only. Karvan sneaks over to look and happens to see Davis, but has no frame of reference to recognize her. Davis has made no effort to contact Karvan and, for a while, I’d forgotten they were going to be mother and daughter, because Davis is so blasé about being in this particular small town.

Well, she’s blasé because she has no idea. But when her car breaks down and she’s got to stay in the same mobile home park while it’s getting fixed up… it’s only a matter of time before she and Karvan cross paths. And then only a little more time before Adele shows up, telling Davis to stay away or else. Can Davis stay away? Ish. The plot perturbations to inform Karvan of her mystery parentage are rather protracted and basically reveal the utter pointlessness of one of the supporting cast members. High Tide’s plotting is particularly weird because the third act dumps significant supporting cast members, leaving their subplots either unresolved or passed off with a shrug and a line of exposition.

Based on how Armstrong sets up the film’s narrative distance in the first act, with the camera as an omniscient, objective third person, it could be fine. But the camera gets a whole lot less exploratory in the second act, especially once Armstrong settles on her system for conversation scenes. Establishing, close-up, alternate close-up, close-up, alternative close-up, maybe a tight medium shot of one person, then the other, then scene. Armstrong sticks closest to this formula with anything involving Davis, which means you rarely get to see her and Karvan on screen together. Instead there are just the reaction shots as they try to figure out their relationship, which ought to be some good scenes, based on how well Davis and Karvan do in other parts of the film… but the script’s not there. You wait the whole movie—well, after it’s revealed they’re really doing the one in 16.26 million chance of them running into each other—and then the pay-off is blah. It’s okay enough for Davis, but the film’s been gradually less and less her perspective and more her being a subject, but it’s terrible for Karvan. When Davis and Adele are fighting over her, she’s got all the agency of a paperweight.

Again, with that omniscient, objective third person camera Armstrong could get away with it because she’s just finding the image in these actions, but Armstrong has long since dropped it. Even for the terrible melodrama beat, it’s not like Armstrong’s got some beautifully visualized sequence with crappy music. It’s a boring (albeit pretty because ocean and beach and whatnot) visual and that crappy saxophone blaring.

For some of the second act, before it’s clear Davis doesn’t actually have anything going on besides the don’t-want-to-be a mom arc, it seems like High Tide would be better if she and Karvan’s stories were just juxtaposed. But they don’t end up having enough story. Davis’s most successful character relationship arc is with the mechanic (Mark Hembrow), who’s not even in it enough to get a name in the end credits. And Adele… she kind of gets more to do than either of them, but it’s just to burn runtime.

Good photography from Russell Boyd, fine editing from Nicholas Beauman. Sally Campbell’s production design is excellent.

Davis is good, Adele is all right, Karvan’s okay. Friels’s… fine. What’s interesting about Davis is apparently she picks “good” men, which isn’t really part of the story as it turns out. High Tide just needs a good rewrite. And a composer without a predilection for saxophones.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Gillian Armstrong; written by Laura Jones; director of photography, Russell Boyd; edited by Nicholas Beauman; music by Peter Best; production designer, Sally Campbell; costume designer, Terry Ryan; produced by Sandra Levy; released by Filmpac Distribution.

Starring Judy Davis (Lilli), Claudia Karvan (Ally), Jan Adele (Bet), John Clayton (Col), Colin Friels (Mick), Frankie J. Holden (Lester), Toni Scanlan (Mary), Monica Trapaga (Tracey), ‘Cowboy’ Bob Purtell (Joe), Marc Aden Gray (Jason), Emily Stocker (Michelle), and Mark Hembrow (the mechanic).


Barry Lyndon (1975, Stanley Kubrick)

The first half of Barry Lyndon, very nicely delineated on screen with a title card and then an intermission, is a black comedy. The second half is a tragedy. The epilogue explicitly reconciles the two, but there’s also Michael Hordern’s narration, which does the most expository work of anything in the picture. For the most part, Barry Lyndon’s characters are inscrutable. There are occasional exceptions, usually driven from ambiguity by rage—often directed at the titular protagonist, played by Ryan O’Neal—like first nemesis Leonard Rossiter and final nemesis Leon Vitali. Rossiter and Vitali’s souls lay bare. Most everyone else’s do not. Least of all O’Neal’s. O’Neal and his protagonist, subject of the narration but not the film, are forever a mystery. The narration often will describe O’Neal’s actions and reactions, even their motivations, but sometimes not. For example, in the first half of the film, when O’Neal deserts and assumes the identity of an officer, we never know why O’Neal doesn’t put more work into his disguise. In the second half, and far more consequentially for everyone, it’s never clear if O’Neal knocking off the drinking and carousing once he marries rich widow Marisa Berenson is sincere and, regardless, what made him knock it off.

Part one of the film follows O’Neal from poverty in Ireland to military success—albeit enlisted—in the Seven Years War on the continent, then his escape from the military into professional gambling, which leads him to Berenson. The scene where O’Neal seduces Berenson is exquisite and singular, a sublime mix of various movie magics—Kubrick’s direction, the actors silent looks exchanged over a card game, John Alcott’s glorious, gorgeous lighting, Tony Lawson’s editing, the music—the film’s main theme is a Handel piece, which Kubrick trains the audience throughout the first half to recognize for what it accompanies dramatically and then is able to use it later to amplify sequences—not to mention Ken Adam’s production design, Milena Canonero and Ulla-Britt Söderlund’s costumes. Every frame of Barry Lyndon is resplendent in one way or another, often in many ways. Kubrick doesn’t do a lot of camera movements, instead relying on zooms to reveal and hide various actions.

Part two of the film is O’Neal and Berenson’s marriage, complicated by his mother (Marie Kean) and her son (Dominic Savage then Leon Vitali), amongst others—not to mention O’Neal’s callousness and cruelty as he assumes control of Berenson’s riches. He’d seduced her while her first husband, aged Frank Middlemass, was still alive and, once his prize is secured, he becomes quite the dick. Again, it’s impossible to know whether O’Neal was always a dick—he’d picked out Berenson as a target, during his days with mentor Patrick Magee, a fellow Irishman pretending to be a Frenchman to card sharp around Europe. O’Neal’s his committed sidekick.

O’Neal and Berenson’s eventual child, David Morley, provides a kind of touchstone for everyone to connect around, even Vitali, who’s seen through O’Neal the whole time and hates him. But it also ends up being Morley who will finally break Vitali’s fragile place in this home he loathes, with his final outburst arguably setting everyone’s lives on a path of destruction. The narrator tells the audience when it’s all too late, some fifty minutes before the end of the film, announcing when it’s time to prepare for the descent, a luxury the characters are without.

The first part of the film is full of entertaining supporting cast members, a somewhat eclectic, somewhat mundane bunch O’Neal meets as his destiny—already rerouted in youth as his father died in a duel just after securing stable employment—moves towards its inevitable conclusion. There’s cousin Gay Hamilton, who teaches O’Neal his way around a woman—it’s unclear how young thirty-two year-old O’Neal is supposed to be playing, but it’s like… seventeen or something. And O’Neal’s frequently blank look is perfect. One of the mysteries is how much O’Neal is grokking things around around him. The Hamilton stuff, at least then O’Neal’s naivety isn’t in question. Hamilton isn’t seriously going to marry her cousin so she warms up to a British officer, aforementioned first nemesis Rossiter, who O’Neal has no problem confronting and making his first duel. The film opens with O’Neal’s father’s death in the duel, so it’s always hanging around. O’Neal is actually fearless while his betters pretend to be and he wields that situation for his own class improvement. Again, does he do it consciously or instinctively… it’s intentionally unclear.

Because while O’Neal is an interesting historical figure to track through these turbulent times, he’s not a sympathetic one. He’s more sympathetic than many and he frequently deserves at least a measure of empathy, he’s never Kubrick’s tragic hero. The tragic hero of the film, its actual subject but not protagonist (because it’s not possible for her to be one) is Berenson. There are tragedies abound in the second part of Lyndon and none of them don’t serve to further devastate Berenson, who weathers them all onscreen in silence, with Kubrick and Alcott’s camera and then Lawson’s cuts all scrutinizing her. O’Neal gives a fantastic performance in Barry Lyndon, but Berenson is the performance the film hinges on. She’s got to convey all the answers without addressing them—or having them addressed in the narration—while O’Neal gets to embrace the inscrutability because, well, he’s a man. And the men of Barry Lyndon place very little value on anything.

The film doesn’t engage much with the fatalism of dueling culture but it’s ever-present. It lurks in the background, waiting for an opportunity to lunge. Similarly, while the first half of Barry Lyndon is very much a war film, it never greatly engages with it; often it’ll happen out-of-shot, but heard, a technique Kubrick utilizes to great effect throughout the first half. Reaction shots from the listener without showing this line or that line being spoken. Eventually it scales up to be the gunfire, which Kubrick actually foreshadows without sound effects earlier in the film. It’s all very intricate, very precise, very delicate.

Everything needs to work for the third act, say the last fifty or so minutes, to deliberately walk its tightrope.

Most everyone O’Neal meets along his way are distinct and excellent—Arthur O'Sullivan’s highwayman only gets a couple scenes but is memorable, Godfrey Quigley’s kindly captain is the closest thing O’Neal, the film, and the audience have to a wholesome role model. Murray Melvin is excellent as Berenson’s personal reverend. Philip Stone’s good as the suffering estate accountant.

Vitali’s got the hardest part in the film and he pulls it off. He manages to be loathsome—he always saves some of his lashings out for Berenson, spitting venom at her once he’s got everyone’s attention—and hateful but never exactly villainous. He’s a very interesting mirror for O’Neal, though neither (apparently) acknowledges it.

Barry Lyndon, especially in the first half, is a history lesson (of sorts); it examines particular times and places, particular cultural norms and mores, without engaging with the larger scale historical events passing. The second half just focuses it in more, examining the participants of the unfolding drama, watching them struggle with their historical contexts… doomed by them, actually. But with a sense of humor about it.

It’s a singular motion picture, always grandiose but never unwieldy, with a superb script from Kubrick, every technical contribution an achievement, and perfect performances. There’s nothing else like it.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Stanley Kubrick; screenplay by Kubrick, based on a novel by William Makepeace Thackeray; director of photography, John Alcott; edited by Tony Lawson; production designer, Ken Adam; costume designers, Milena Canonero and Ulla-Britt Söderlund; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Ryan O’Neal (Barry Lyndon), Marisa Berenson (Lady Honoria Lyndon), Leon Vitali (Lord Bullingdon), Marie Kean (Mrs. Barry), David Morley (Bryan Patrick Lyndon), Murray Melvin (Rev. Samuel Runt), Philip Stone (Graham), Patrick Magee (The Chevalier du Balibari), Gay Hamilton (Nora Brady), Leonard Rossiter (Capt. John Quin), Godfrey Quigley (Capt. Grogan), Hardy Krüger (Capt. Potzdorf), Steven Berkoff (Lord Ludd), Diana Körner (Lischen), Frank Middlemass (Sir Charles Lyndon), Dominic Savage (Young Bullingdon), and Arthur O’Sullivan (Capt. Feeny); narrated by Michael Hordern.


A Safe Place (1971, Henry Jaglom)

A Safe Place tracks the relationship of apparently financially secure but listless hippie Tuesday Weld and her square of a new boyfriend, Phil Proctor. Weld spends her time presumably stoned—though we don’t see her smoke, her friends are always rolling a joint or smoking one—and dwelling on the past. She can’t get over the lack of magic in the world today (today being 1971); there’s a great segment on how exchange names on telephone numbers were special while numbers are not. At times it feels like Safe Place can’t possibly have been tightly scripted but then other times feels like it must’ve been. The actors do a great job drifting between the two feelings, particularly Weld, Jack Nicholson, and Gwen Welles. Though Nicholson it’s a little different; he always makes it feel spontaneous, in which case extra kudos to Weld for not reacting.

Nicholson shows up at near the beginning of the film but we don’t have any real context for him, though it’s clear he’s a romantic interest for Weld, presumably one in her past. Despite Proctor’s constant pursuit of Weld, they never spark, especially since Proctor can never shut up. Weld wants things quiet so she can drift into her imagined past, to when she was a kid and would watch the magician across the street in the park. Orson Welles plays the magician. He never feels scripted, which is fine, it’s Orson Welles doing a bountiful performance complete with an Eastern European accent. He goes so big, relishing in it so much, you can’t quibble with any of it. The one real trick he’s always wanted to be able to perform is making something disappear. He takes Weld to the zoo and tries it out on the animals, which leads to some amazing moments.

Both Welleses, Orson and Gwen, are establishing tone for Weld to later interact with; the Orson Welles at the zoo stuff is a fun, carefree tone, while Gwen Welles has a phenomenally despondent monologue about being objectified and dehumanized living in 1971 New York. That monologue, which director Jaglom gives a showcase like nothing else in the film gets, not even Nicholson when he shows up proper, needs to be there to fully establish Weld’s ground situation too. She’d never have a monologue like it, it’d be out of character, but her experiences are clearly similar.

Once it becomes clear how the film “works,” how it moves from Weld to her imagined past, when the film’s following Weld there in her mind and when the film’s just going there—Weld’s the lead but not the protagonist, she’s the subject, with Proctor ending up being somewhat closer to a traditional protagonist role but only because he’s takes a lot of action. Or threatens to take action. He’s kind of exhausting in how much action he takes, which gives the film this wonderful sense of empathy for Weld even as she’s (ostensibly) inexplicable. Proctor’s a lot. Clearly he’s a lot.

Jaglom establishes the ebb and flow of the timeline visually, through editing, composition, and direction. Weld frequently looks directly into the camera, watching the world around her unfold. Jaglom also will shoot the Welleses straight on, but for different effect. With Gwen Welles, the eyes mesmerize against her story, offering the viewer a chance to examine her in this bare moment. Orson Welles it’s sometimes for humor, sometimes for magic. Except we already know it’s not real magic but is it something nefarious or just mirthful chicanery. It’s always hard to tell because while everyone exists in the same spaces—mostly around Central Park Lake, or at Weld’s apartment (or on its roof), Orson Welles doesn’t interact with anyone but Weld. The first act has a lot of cuts establishing how he’s been there but isn’t there but is there. He’s there when Weld needs him, but he’s not entirely dependent on her.

Gwen Welles, Proctor, Nicholson, they all interact in one way or another. Proctor’s in the room during the Gwen Welles monologue; his attendance of it is apparently around the time Weld gives up and just lets him in. Some time later, when Nicholson enters the action proper, it’s after Proctor has moved himself into Weld’s apartment and has assumed a male authority figure role, but not one Weld or anyone else takes seriously.

It’s all very intricate, very complex, entirely established and explored through anti-sensical conversations, camera movement, and editing, everything tied together with selections from the Columbia Records songbook playing in the background—Weld’s got a jukebox in her apartment, presumably filled with them, including some fantastic French language cover versions.

Phenomenal photography from Richard C. Kratina—even if you can’t get onboard Safe Place’s jumbled narrative (which still ends up being way too epical), the photography alone can keep interest. Then there’s Pieter Bergema’s editing, which is somehow even more exquisite than the photography.

Weld’s good, Nicholson’s good, Proctor’s okay. The Welleses are good, though Gwen’s better and has a lot more work to do. Jaglom’s direction is aces.

A Safe Place is a qualified success—the third act is way too obvious and Proctor, both in terms of performance and character in the film, isn’t enough—and some absolutely exquisite filmmaking.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Henry Jaglom; director of photography, Richard C. Kratina; edited by Pieter Bergema; production designer, Harold Schneider; costume designer, Barbara Flood; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Tuesday Weld (Susan), Phil Proctor (Fred), Jack Nicholson (Mitch), Gwen Welles (Bari), Dov Lawrence (Larry), and Orson Welles (The Magician).


Fresh Horses (1988, David Anspaugh)

The surprise tragedy of Fresh Horses is Molly Ringwald could’ve been good in it. Even though she’s top-billed, she doesn’t get a scene without Andrew McCarthy until almost halfway through the movie—she’s the white trash object of his working-to-middle class sexual lust—but she’s not good in that scene. Actually, it’s her only scene without McCarthy in the movie, I think. Wow. Anyway. She has this scene where she shocks the three girls McCarthy and best friend Ben Stiller have brought to she and McCarthy’s love nest (a shack alongside the railroad) to party and, if Stiller has his way, orgy. It’s not a great monologue by any stretch but it does show agency, which Ringwald’s without the rest of the film even when it pretends she’s got some.

But that scene… it’s where Fresh Horses, for the first time since the first act, has some potential to go somewhere good. The film’s so far past the point of no return but for a moment, it seems like it might. Maybe because of the awesome rainy sequence at these stairs (the Serpentine Wall in Cincinnati), when it seems like McCarthy and Stiller are going to go for some wholesome bonding as they take McCarthy’s dad’s boat out on the river, which is actually the opening titles.

They don’t. They go to try to get laid, which ends up being the most passively offensive sequence in the film (as opposed to the actively offensive ones like when McCarthy accuses Ringwald of making up sexual assault or, you know, hits her… Fresh Horses is truly fucked up). McCarthy and Stiller on the prowl isn’t just why the sequence—they crash rich girl Molly Hagan’s house, where she’s having a pool party with Welker White and Rachel Jones—is so offensive, but because it turns out the three girls are just waiting for the guys to validate their existence with the gift of McCarthy and Stiller sticks. There’s an actual line of dialogue—from a female character—about how men don’t realize how lucky women feel to get laid.

Now, in a better world, I wouldn’t have given Fresh Horses enough time to get to that point in the film. Director Anspaugh can shoot a mean Serpentine Wall in the rain but it’s not like his direction is good. His instincts are terrible, especially with the actors—like, no one thought we should actually hear McCarthy break up with rich girl fiancée Chiara Peacock or maybe have the scene after McCarthy gets beat up for not pimping out Ringwald where they see each other. The subsequent scene to the sad fade out on beaten McCarthy is Ringwald asking surrogate mom Patti D'Arbanville if she’d ever been the object of working-to-middle class sexual lust and D’Arbanville–Fresh Horses doesn’t just reject Bechdel, it rejects the idea of it—D’Arbanville wistfully tells Ringwald she’d trade one McCarthy for all her experience, which doesn’t so much sound romantic as make all of D’Arbanville’s encounters sound like rape.

But writer Larry Kenton (who adapted his apparently just as fucked up play) doesn’t… have a concept of consent. The film’s a relic of toxic masculinity among the beta males, as Stiller (who’s got a serious girlfriend, Marita Geraghty, but spends most of the movie on the prowl) explains it to McCarthy—it’s hard to make male friends so you have to make sure not to lose the ones you’ve got, even if it means making sure they don’t get to be with the girls they want to be with. See, Stiller’s buds with college scuz bucket Doug Hutchison who gossips about Ringwald actually being sixteen and married, which leads to the first time McCarthy lays hands on Ringwald. Not the hitting scene. That one comes later, after he smuggles her into his house—the film doesn’t establish he lives with his parents until that point, in fact, given Peacock being so ostentatiously wealthy, it seems more like McCarthy’s similarly classed—and she makes too much noise.

Fresh Horses makes you wonder if the men who made it regretted it after they had daughters.

Actually, the first big tell of problems isn’t the strange opening credits where you can never follow the vapid rich folk conversations because no one could be bothered to really write them, it’s when McCarthy’s leaving his class (he’s an engineering student in college who also knows his rules of grammar because he’s going to correct high school dropout Ringwald on occasion, including when she’s telling him about being assaulted)… McCarthy pointlessly says, “Hi, Mr. Berg,” to this guy in the background. The producer. The producer put a cameo in the movie where the movie star lead has to identify him by name and show some deference. So I did learn one thing from Fresh Horses. Avoid movies where stars have to suck up to the producers onscreen.

Is there anything good about Fresh Horses? Is Viggo Mortensen good as Ringwald’s definitely abusive maybe husband? Umm. He’s not as bad as some people. You feel bad for D'Arbanville; her character runs a rural Tennessee party house where rough men play poker and pool and D’Arbanville serves them liquor and perv on her fifteen year-old daughter. Fresh Horses is basically a White guy’s shitty short story with a romance subplot grafted on. I know because it’s the kind of shitty short story I would’ve written because I grew up on crap like Fresh Horses.

Oh. What are Fresh Horses? They’re women. Once you tire out one horse, you get another. But they also get tired out by other riders so you don’t want those ones either.

Fresh Horses is terrible. You shouldn’t watch it. I shouldn’t have watched it. I feel bad I made my cat sit through it. I’m sorry, Fozzy. I’m very sorry.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by David Anspaugh; screenplay by Larry Ketron, based on his play; director of photography, Fred Murphy; edited by David Rosenbloom; music by David Foster and Patrick Williams; production designer, Paul Sylbert; costume designer, Colleen Atwood; produced by Richard Berg; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Andrew McCarthy (Matt), Molly Ringwald (Jewel), Ben Stiller (Tipton), Chiara Peacock (Alice), Marita Geraghty (Maureen), Doug Hutchison (Sproles), Molly Hagan (Ellen), Rachel Jones (Bobo), Welker White (Christy), Viggo Mortensen (Green), and Patti D’Arbanville (Jean).


Little Women (2019, Greta Gerwig)

Little Women has two parallel timelines. There’s the present, starting in post-Civil War New York City with teacher and pulp writer Saoirse Ronan living in boarding house (where she also teaches). Then it flashes back to Ronan’s life seven years earlier, at home in rural Massachusetts; she’s the second oldest of four sisters; oldest is Emma Watson, youngest is Eliza Scanlen, Florence Pugh is second-youngest. Pugh sees Ronan as an adversary for the world’s attention while Ronan might see Pugh as annoyance but often doesn’t see her at all. For the first half of the film, the flashbacks are steady. We meet mom Laura Dern, who volunteers all her time to help the war effort, the husband and father off in the (Union) Army, the girls fending for themselves as far as attention goes.

Ronan’s always been the writer—writing plays for them to act out—Watson’s the actor, Pugh’s the painter, Scanlen’s the musician. The flashbacks reveal how these talents flourished during the home front days. At a party, Ronan meets the new neighbor, similarly aged Timothée Chalamet, newly orphaned and now living with his grandfather, rich guy Chris Cooper. Chalamet and Ronan are both socially awkward wallflowers but extroverted ones, so they immediately hit it off. And through Chalamet, the families reconnect and become good friends, with Cooper opening his house to the sisters, offering to share in the intellectual wealth. There are books for Ronan, paintings for Pugh, a piano for Scanlen… and James Norton for Watson.

Norton is Chalamet’s tutor, penniless and just the right kind of dreamy for Watson.

Of course, seeing them meet and gently fall in love comes in a different context thanks to director (and screenwriter) Gerwig’s bifurcated narrative. We’ve seen their less than glamorous present—in fact, when they marry and move into the same house we’ve seen in the future… it’s a bittersweet moment. Watson’s the one sister with the express dream of having a family and while Ronan can still write, Pugh can still paint, Watson’s getting frustrated. So her flashbacks have the shadow of the future cast against them, which really neatly resolves in an echo in the third act, but still… it’s rough seeing her dreams stalling.

Pugh’s also giving up on her dreams in the present, deciding she’s only ever going to be an excellent painter and never a genius, even though she agrees with Chalamet the all-male academy in charge of assigning genius is severely wanting. The film’s got a lot of discussions about a woman’s potential, but the ones between Pugh and Chalamet are striking, maybe because the most we know abut Chalamet to start is Ronan’s going to turn down a marriage proposal someday. Even as the film—in the present—discusses events in the past, Gerwig never goes so far as to promise they’re going to get played out onscreen. So when the film actually does the marriage proposal flashback and it cuts through Chalamet and Ronan; even though we’ve spent most of the film with them past this trauma, it’s even sharper, even bloodier, for knowing the characters better. For having seen them develop to this point and then past it.

Little Women’s flashback device is fairly singular. It’s not a piece where the story is in the flashback (but it’s also not one where the story isn’t in the flashback), it’s not a piece where the protagonist drifts between; in fact, once you realize what’s going on in the present, the film checking in with anyone besides Ronan is mildly unwelcome. There’s nothing good waiting in the present for anyone it seems, whereas the past is full of laughter, music, dancing, celebration. But the flashbacks also aren’t for happy moments, the present for the sad. And even when the correspond with one another, even when Gerwig’s doing it for best effect, they’re not for echoing either. Gerwig’s an exceptionally “hands off” director as far as style goes, she never tries to show up the unfolding production; every choice furthers the film as a whole. The flashbacks and the present compliment one another for the film’s sake, which isn’t even the same thing as for the characters’ sake. Ronan and Pugh in the present get character studies while Watson gets some of one in the past, but Gerwig uses that approach to further things later on. Ronan and Pugh’s adversarial relationship exists mostly in the characters’ (and viewers’) perceptions. The tight focus on the actors in the first act and half means later on, when Gerwig’s got a lot more group-based, epical action to deal with, Ronan, Pugh, and Watson have a lot more inherent heft.

Meanwhile Scanlen, grown up watching her sisters and seeing their hopes and dreams rise and fall, has wisdom, just not the wisdom her sisters need (or know they need) because it’s all very messy. Of the four sisters, Scanlen is the one with the most obvious possibility for her talent. The stage isn’t in Watson’s cards because she’s too middle class, Pugh and Ronan have major obstacles in any pursuit to get paid for their artistic talents, but Scanlen’s piano playing seems within the realm of possibility. Not too lofty a dream for a young woman in the late nineteenth century.

All of the sisters, in one way or another, are acutely aware of their situations. Watson knows marrying penniless but dreamy Norton means hard work and a hard life. Ronan and Pugh both know a woman’s best potential from rich aunt Meryl Streep, who revels in crushing her nieces’ artistic dreams with the hard facts about what a woman can and cannot do. Well, she revels in it initially, but once Streep gets talking about the situation, the mean-spiritedness fades fast, as she hears the terrible words she’s speaking. The best any of the sisters can hope for is Pugh marrying a rich man who’ll let her take care of them all, including parents Dern and Bob Odenkirk. When we finally get to see Streep and Odenkirk together, after she’s spent the film running him down, is a fantastic moment; Gerwig’s able to get in emotional gut punches thanks to the flashback structure, but she’s also able reverse it and fill the moments with joy.

The film’s constant isn’t joy, however, not on its own. It’s anger. And maybe joy in spite of anger. Maybe at the start of the second act, in flashback, Dern has a talk with Ronan about how Dern—who we’ve seen as a homemaking saint to this point—has a secret no one has ever guessed. Well, except maybe Streep. She lives in a constant state of anger at the world, at the unfairness of it, the evil in it, and refuses to let it better her.

At this moment, Dern frankly becomes the most interesting performance in the entire film. She and Ronan are phenomenal together and Ronan’s great, Pugh’s great, Chalamet’s excellent, but when Dern’s in a scene, you watch Dern. You want to understand how Dern is getting through this moment. But also Ronan. Ronan’s inherited the blinding anger and works to quell it, which—again thanks to the structure—informs all her scenes previous to the conversation with Dern… including the present day ones. The flashbacks inform on the characters in the present, sort of bake in textures in real-time, but with Ronan, it’s like she gets an additional two layers of depth with the wave of a wand or flick of a fountain pen. It’s awesome.

Because even with—I think dazzling is the about the only appropriately enthusiastic adjective—even with dazzling performances from Pugh, Chalamet, Dern, Streep, and excellent ones from Watson, Scanlen, Cooper, it’s Ronan’s film. Gerwig gives her this big silent acting moment, when what plays across Ronan’s face is what Little Women leaves its audience with, it’s all about Ronan. And her anger and her joy. And what she does with both of them. It’s a breathtaking finale, with the film’s perfect score (by Alexandre Desplat) accompanying. Even though she’s adapting an oft-adapted novel, Gerwig pushes the ending until it’s right for the adaptation, collapsing flashback and flash forward, dream and reality, until it can hinge solely on Ronan’s expressions as she reacts to the culminating moment.

And Gerwig and Ronan nail it because of course they do. The last thirty minutes of Little Women, if it didn’t bombard the emotions, tugging and shoving between happy angry sobs and sad angry sobs—I’m not even sure why I was crying at the very end, though I know Desplat didn’t help—the last thirty minutes would be a victory lap. Just due to the nature of the plot, Gerwig’s hardest “sell” comes at the end of the second act, beginning of the third. So when she and the film are able to keep climbing instead of just sailing to the finish, it’s glorious. And sad. And joyous. And sad.

It’s spectacular work. Everything technical is outstanding—Gerwig’s direction, Yorick Le Saux’s photography, Nick Houy’s editing, Desplat’s music, Jess Gonchor’s production design is breathtaking; Jacqueline Durran’s costumes are superlative. Little Women looks—and sounds (not just the score, the sound editing is great)—amazing.

I mean, it’s capital, obviously.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Greta Gerwig; screenplay by Gerwig, based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott; director of photography, Yorick Le Saux; edited by Nick Houy; music by Alexandre Desplat; production designer, Jess Gonchor; costume designer, Jacqueline Durran; produced by Amy Pascal, Denise Di Novi, and Robin Swicord; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Saoirse Ronan (Jo March), Emma Watson (Meg March), Florence Pugh (Amy March), Eliza Scanlen (Beth March), Laura Dern (Marmee March), Timothée Chalamet (Laurie), Tracy Letts (Mr. Dashwood), Bob Odenkirk (Father March), James Norton (John Brooke), Louis Garrel (Friedrich Bhaer), Jayne Houdyshell (Hannah), Chris Cooper (Mr. Laurence), and Meryl Streep (Aunt March).


The Irishman (2019, Martin Scorsese)

The disconcerting part of The Irishman’s actually never-ending CGI isn’t the aging and de-aging, it’s star Robert De Niro’s creepy blue eyes. For the first half hour of the (three and a half hour runtime), I was trying to get used to De Niro’s CGI… makeup, but kept having problems with it, which didn’t make sense because Joe Pesci’s didn’t cause any similar consternation. Then I realized it wasn’t the aging or de-aging, it’s the eyes. De Niro’s got these piercing blue eyes and they just don’t look right on him and you can’t look away from them, which is kind of the point.

If the eyes are the windows to the soul… well, with The Irishman, Scorsese and De Niro have figured out how to do a character study without ever letting anyone into the character. De Niro’s character, real-life teamster and confessed mob hitman Frank Sheeran, starts the film as an aimless, aging truck driver. He breaks down and happens to meet local mobster Joe Pesci, which pays off after De Niro’s gotten busted for stealing from his company—selling beef on the side to a fantastic Bobby Cannavale, apparently mid-level Philadelphia mob guy. De Niro keeps his mouth shut in court, impressing lawyer Ray Romano (also fantastic, clearly a lot of people wanted their chance to shine in the ultimate Scorsese mob picture), so Romano re-introduces him to Pesci and Pesci starts giving him work. Pesci’s playing older than De Niro (the real-life age difference was seventeen years), but the actors are the same age and so they’re in differing intensities of CGI de-aging. There is an onboarding period with The Irishman, when you’re wondering what it must have looked like on the set, with actors like Romano and Cannavale, seemingly just in some make-up, are acting opposite much older guys De Niro and Pesci, who don’t end up looking much older. Like, once it’s clear De Niro’s supposed to look like a tough Irish guy, explaining his stocky shoulders, it all just fits. All just works. It ceases being a concern and actually ends up being one of the film’s unintended pluses. The Irishman is all about aging. It’s all about the passage of time. Just not for the first act and then there’s this intentional avoiding of it for a lot of the second. It’s a long movie; Scorsese can take his time shifting the film’s tone.

But it’s also a multilevel narrative—De Niro, in a rest home, is telling his story, a very old man. Second level is De Niro telling the story of this time he and Pesci and their wives drove from Philadelphia to Detroit for a wedding. Along the way, sometimes because of visual cues, sometimes not, De Niro thinks about his story getting him to that point. We don’t find out the point of that point until much later in the film, after it’s transitioned from the middle-aged schlub (the main action starts when De Niro’s character is in his thirties but he looks much older) gets involved with the mob and tosses out wife Aleksa Palladino for cocktail waitress Stephanie Kurtzuba, which literally has no narrative impact because De Niro’s already estranged daughters immediately bond with the new wife. It ought not to work, but does because the film’s still establishing its narrative distance from De Niro. It’s not until about halfway through the movie you realize he’s not a protagonist. He’s an unreliable, willing but unenthusiastic narrator—it’s clear real quick these trips down memory lane aren’t pleasing to De Niro, at any level he’s narrating. Because once the film introduces Jimmy Hoffa everything changes. Al Pacino plays Hoffa; doing it like a comedy caricature, then making that real—the yelling finally pays off, thanks to Scorsese. The film’s already been this old mob men buddy picture between De Niro and Pesci moves on to be this De Niro and Pacino buddy flick. They hang out with their families, they have heart to heart talks, De Niro even sleeps in Pacino’s hotel suites so he’s not on the register because De Niro’s not just a teamster, he’s Pacino’s bodyguard.

The family thing is important because The Irishman’s only subplot is De Niro’s daughter, Lucy Gallina as a kid, Anna Paquin as an adult. Gallina figures out pretty quick once her dad goes from being a meat delivery truck driver to a mob hitman. It isn’t until he starts hanging out with Pacino does Gallina start liking anything about her dad’s life. She and Pacino are pals. He’s a dotting grandpa figure who buys her ice cream sundaes. Pacino and the ice cream sundaes becomes a nice detail fast.

The family thing gets important again in the third act, after the disappearance. Because at the end of all three levels of story are the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa. The third level, the main narrative, tracks De Niro basically babysitting Pacino through historical events, through the Kennedy administration’s persecution—causing a rift between the mob and the unions (the film does need some kind of a historical accuracy section in the credits just so people know how much of the completely whacked out corruption details are true), which eventually leads to Pacino’s feud with dipshit mobster and rival teamster boss Stephen Graham. Graham’s going to be Pacino’s downfall, no matter what Pesci, De Niro, or anyone else do about it. And it’s a long, drawn out, unpleasant downfall.

Because the closest thing The Irishman has to a hero is Pacino’s Hoffa. He’s far from perfect, but he does help people. If the sixties union speeches about the soulless corporations are accurate, well, would you believe things haven’t really improved in sixty years? Oh, right, we already know that.

Of course, he’s not a hero because there aren’t such a thing. There can’t be. If heroes were such a thing, guys like Pesci and De Niro wouldn’t know how to function. It would mean their world views were abjectly broken and, even if Pesci and De Niro aren’t great fans of the world… broken’s a lot.

That thread plays out later on when The Irishman ends on a starkly atheistic note, which makes perfect sense but is a little surprising. At one point, once it’s clear where they’re going, I actually thought, “we’re a long way from Last Temptation, aren’t we.” The Irishman is a perfectly aged film; it’s cumulative for its creators in all the right ways. Having Pacino do a character actor part is just the crowning achievement. For two hours and forty five minutes of the film, it’s very clearly not De Niro’s, which is weird. It seems like it’s De Niro’s. It’s literally got a Little Big Man bookend; The Irishman has got to be this great culmination. Then isn’t.

And it’s not De Niro’s movie for a long time either. It’s Pesci’s or Pacino’s or even Romano’s; De Niro costars in every one of his scenes, even the ones with Gallina and Paquin, which is something since neither of them talk for most of their scenes. De Niro’s the right hand man, even in his own story.

The last thirty minutes changes it all around and is where Irishman sort of ascends the stairs it wasn’t clear anyone was building. Once it’s clear how The Irishman’s going to go… it’s an ultimate trip.

The film goes from being a success to an achievement, with Scorsese’s direction this perfect mix of confident and enthusiastic. He takes his time establishing the filmmaking ground situation—how he, cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (and whoever CGIed locations back in time), editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and composer Robbie Robertson (doing some damn fine work, which turns out to be minimalist Morricone) are going to visualize this narrative—then starts branching out, using slow motion for sequences, using a direct exposition dump or two; it’s all very carefully executed and results in every shot being something of a surprise.

There’s a badass 2001 homage. The aforementioned “ultimate trip” is a reference to it but it deserves a callout. It’s really cool. The Irishman still manages to be really cool filmmaking, even after a 130 minutes. Scorsese’s got the juice.

Strong script from Steven Zaillian. He’s got a habit of dragging things out, which Scorsese and the actors are then able to cut lean and nimble, but it’s a questionable habit. Essential expository character development scenes are essential because of Pacino or Pesci or whatever. Not because of Zaillian.

Best performance is either Pesci or Pacino. It’s a toss-up. Pacino for turning a leading man biopic performance into a supporting part or Pesci for getting so much mileage out of a mundane bad guy. But it’s De Niro’s movie in the end. He gets that amazing finale and makes magic. With those creepy CGI blue eyes.

Supporting tier… Romano and Cannavale are the standouts; once Pacino comes in, they all become a lot less important. Sebastian Maniscalco has a great small part. Graham’s a perfect dipshit, which is good, I guess; don’t get typecast (or do). Domenick Lombardozzi’s got a significant supporting part and is unrecognizable to the point you wonder if there’s some CGI involved. He’s excellent in what’s basically the villain part. Harvey Keitel’s got an extended cameo, presumably just to bring a bunch of the gang back together.

Is The Irishman, which Scorsese would’ve preferred to title, I Heard You Paint Houses, but really should just be called Jimmy and Me (or Relating to a Sociopath), a culmination of all Scorsese, De Niro, and Pesci’s mob pictures? Yes and no. It doesn’t make an informal trilogy or quartet, because it’s a do-over. It’s Scorsese figuring out what he wants to say about that thing of theirs, made with properly aged thoughtfulness.

The most striking part of the film is the buddy flick aspect, when it’s just old men De Niro and Pacino pretending to younger old men finding an unexpected friendship. It’s really comfortable work from all involved, even though it seems like where they’d have the most problem. Cracking Pacino and De Niro’s relationship is the film’s (first) big success; basically the first and second act can get away with anything thanks to it. And the second big success, the aforementioned achievement, that one’s the third act.

The Irishman is supplanting work.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Martin Scorsese; screenplay by Steven Zaillian, based on a book by Charles Brandt; director of photography, Rodrigo Prieto; edited by Thelma Schoonmaker; music by Robbie Robertson; production designer, Bob Shaw; costume designers, Christopher Peterson and Sandy Powell; produced by Gerald Chamales, Robert De Niro, Randall Emmett, Gabriele Israilovici, Gastón Pavlovich, Jane Rosenthal, Scorsese, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, and Irwin Winkler; released by Netflix.

Starring Robert De Niro (Frank Sheeran), Al Pacino (Jimmy Hoffa), Joe Pesci (Russell Bufalino), Ray Romano (Bill Bufalino), Bobby Cannavale (Skinny Razor), Stephen Graham (Anthony ‘Tony Pro’ Provenzano), Domenick Lombardozzi (Fat Tony Salerno), Jesse Plemons (Chuckie O’Brien), Gary Basaraba (Frank ‘Fitz’ Fitzsimmons), Marin Ireland (Older Dolores Sheeran), Anna Paquin (Older Peggy Sheeran), Lucy Gallina (Young Peggy Sheeran), Louis Cancelmi (Sally Bugs), Sebastian Maniscalco (Crazy Joe Gallo), Jake Hoffman (Allen Dorfman), Stephanie Kurtzuba (Irene Sheeran), Welker White (Josephine ‘Jo’ Hoffa), Kathrine Narducci (Carrie Bufalino), Aleksa Palladino (Mary Sheeran), and Harvey Keitel (Angelo Bruno).


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