The Irishman (2019)

Today sees the UK release of Harriet, but only two weeks ago we got a brand new biopic from Martin Scorsese. For that I did a themed week around very long films, but this week’s theme means I can revisit that film and post a review. I liked it. I gather some didn’t or felt it somehow less consequential in Scorsese’s oeuvre, but a lot of people have been gunning for him for some throwaway but no less deeply felt comments about superhero movies. Still, there’s a place for everything in modern cinema, and even if three-and-a-half hour gangster epics are mostly being made for streaming services now, it was still a solid box office draw given the very large packed cinema I saw this one in on a Saturday afternoon.


Look, I mean yes Scorsese has some good films (even some great ones) in all genres, but the stuff he’s always been best at capturing is the world of gangsters — a shady world of men closed away behind dark glasses in subterranean lairs — but those worlds have changed as he’s got older. Now the gangsters are old too, they’re old men who have lost things in life, maybe lost everything, lost their friends, alienated their families and are just these old men, dying off and being forgotten. No matter how powerful you were, how much influence you had, eventually people forget your name, your legacy and everything that made you important when you were in your prime, and that’s eventually what it feels like he’s getting at by the end of this film. The de-aging technology has been much discussed, but even when these men are presumably playing 20 or 30-year-olds, back in the 1950s, they still look like old men, move in a hulking slow way — I don’t think that’s wrong for the characters, but in practice they always seem old no matter what the time period is. The timelines are all mixed up, though, as events from one era rush into those from another, because this is a story being told from the perspective of that old, forgotten gangster, as snippets of events seem to hit him and pull him along, and for all of its length, the film is never slow or boring, provided you like this slow-burning vibe that Scorsese is going for. Pacino does his usual big thing, though increasingly looking like Steve Van Zandt as he gets older in the film (and Little Steven is in the film too, in a small part, playing some old school crooner on stage I believe), but the rest of the cast are all about intensity, not least Joe Pesci, who feels like the real standout in this ensemble. It’s a good film, is what I’m saying.

The Irishman film posterCREDITS
Director Martin Scorsese; Writer Steven Zaillian (based on the non-fiction book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt); Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto; Starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Ray Romano, Anna Paquin, Stephen Graham; Length 209 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Saturday 9 November 2019.

Two 2018 Biopics Directed by Women: On the Basis of Sex and Mary Queen of Scots

I don’t like to feature films I find a little disappointing, but both of these biopics failed to live up to the expectations created by the respective subjects and the many fine actors involved. Still, it’s worth shining some light on them as both are directed by women (albeit both written by men), and perhaps others will enjoy them more than I did. Both have a lot to commend them, after all, despite my tepid reviews.

Continue reading “Two 2018 Biopics Directed by Women: On the Basis of Sex and Mary Queen of Scots”

If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

Of recent cinematic talent, there are few who have garnered as much attention as Barry Jenkins — not least thanks to his Oscar-winning Moonlight (2016), though that came quite a few years after his debut Medicine for Melancholy (2008). Still, it allowed him to make this film, which is as gorgeous and sensuous a film as any made in the last decade.


I mean, clearly, I was never not going to love this film: Barry Jenkins’ filmmaking is almost the definition of what I like in terms of film style, a swooning, gauzy, gorgeous, beautifully-orchestrated adaptation of a great writer’s work. (I hadn’t even realised that I’d seen the only other Baldwin film adaptation, which is of the same novel, 20 years ago, and while I doubt that Robert Guédiguian’s À la place du coeur is bad, because I have liked his films a fair deal, it also hasn’t stuck in my mind at all…) Anyway, this film has all the beauty and sense of atmosphere he brought to Moonlight, as it follows the love story of these two young people bringing a child into the world. KiKi Layne is fantastic as Tish, in particular, and I don’t know why she’s not getting all the awards attention, but it’s possibly because she pulls her character in so tightly, as this woman who seems to be trying to disappear under the eyes of the adults around her, almost squeaking out her lines, while very clearly having huge reserves of strength and passion within her that at times become far more evident. Jenkins’ style is to draw out these moments with a great, tender eye, such as when the two families meet together, which is like a slow-motion car crash of a scene, at once going exactly how you expect it will, but also with these moments between actors (Teyonah Parris as Tish’s sister is another highlight), as they catch one another’s eye, or react almost imperceptibly but palpably on film. It’s a gorgeous piece of filmmaking, and a beautiful love story too, which happens to make clear the immense amount of difficulty they have to face just going about their day-to-day lives, as young Black people in America. It may be set in the 70s, but one doesn’t feel much has changed in certain respects.

If Beale Street Could Talk film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Barry Jenkins (based on the novel by James Baldwin); Cinematographer James Laxton; Starring KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Teyonah Parris, Brian Tyree Henry; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Sunday 10 February 2019.

Amazing Grace (2018)

Harking back to last week’s musical theme is this concert film of Aretha Franklin in 1972. Despite being filmed at the time, there were technical issues to deal with, not to mention Franklin herself, and was only released finally last year. As it is essentially a gospel concert filmed in a church, with contributions from Franklin’s own father and others in the same tradition, it provides a slice of African-American religious experience, albeit one that has been elevated and curated for a quite different audience.


We see director Sydney Pollack near the start, chatting to his camera operators as the church is set up, and then throughout the film we see him from time to time gesticulating wildly to get his cameramen to pick out something happening in the audience or away from centre stage. Indeed, because this concert was filmed in a church, there’s not really any space to hide and so, unlike many concert films, there are a lot of shots where we can clearly see all the cameras and sound recording equipment, and somehow that makes this feel all the more intimate and personable. But, as the familiar documentary marketing blurb goes, due to technical complications the footage was never released… until now. (Actually it seems it was ready a decade ago, but while she was alive Aretha Franklin blocked it from being released.)

Aretha is of course staggeringly good, but the film is wonderful in affording time to everything around her: the faces of the gospel choir are featured every bit as heavily, the well-practised patter of Rev Cleveland introducing the songs and helping out on the piano and vocals on a number of the more straightforwardly gospel numbers, and then there’s the audience, who are like a time capsule in and of themselves, getting to their feet, providing the call-and-response that Cleveland expects. On the second of the two nights, word has clearly got around, so Aretha’s father is there (hopping up to wipe down her sweating brow while she’s in full stride), Clara Ward (another gospel singer), even Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts can be spotted up the back in the audience.

Still, ultimately, this is Aretha’s film, and her performance is really spine-tingling, cementing it almost instantly as one of the all-time classic great concert movies.

Amazing Grace film posterCREDITS
Directors Sydney Pollack and Alan Elliott; Starring Aretha Franklin; Length 87 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Wednesday 15 May 2019.

Ang Panahon ng Halimaw (Season of the Devil, 2018)

I’ve seen a fair few Lav Diaz films now (which means several days’ worth of running time probably), and reviewed some of them on here, but I have yet to really have my Damascene moment with his work. I like his style, I like the way his films are shaped, which seems to me to be distinct and different from a lot of contemporary cinema. Yet for all that I’ve at times really liked the experience of watching one of his often epic-length narratives, I still don’t find them as thrilling as I should, and I fear that may be the case for this one too. It’s a musical, yes, but it’s very much a Lav Diaz film too, for all that this might entail. I do, however, feel like I’ve learned a lot about Filipino society and history from his work, which can be its own reward of course, and will be why I keep returning to him. (I hope to do a themed week around cinema of the Philippines soon.)


In most musicals people sing to express joy or love, where the heightened presentation reflects the characters’ excessive emotional states, but then there are those musicals where the songs mask a deeper pain that cannot be expressed through simple words, and, well, I’ll let you guess which of those categories this film falls into. It’s called Season of the Devil and it’s set in the late-70s during the Marcos regime, as bands of vigilantes have been organised into uniformed militias (the CHDF) to maintain local order and the power of the regime through violence and repression. The setting is a remote village where a young woman (Shaina Magdayao) has set up a free clinic, and the lush black-and-white cinematography recalls Lav Diaz’s recent historical epic A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery (2016). This one moves at more of a clip, but it still expresses a great deal of pain, and feels like one of his bleaker films of recent years, and we see the people of this small community in pain at the violence and tyranny wrought by the government. Fairly uneasy viewing in Duterte’s Philippines, one suspects, and this perhaps explains why it was shot in Malaysia.

Season of the Devil film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Lav Diaz; Cinematographer Larry Manda; Starring Piolo Pascual, Shaina Magdayao; Length 234 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Sunday 18 August 2019.

Filmfarsi (2019)

This week sees the release to UK cinema’s of Tehran: City of Love, a recent film set in Iran’s capital. As such, I’ve got a themed week of Iranian cinema, representing one of the richest cinematic traditions in the region. The first film I’m covering is another recent film, but one which looks back towards the past, before the Revolution that saw out the Shah.


I’m sure many of us have seen plenty of (serious, engaged) Iranian film made since their 1979 revolution, but what this documentary does is chart the popular cinema that held the country’s attention before then, linking it not just to wider cultural currents coming from Hollywood and the geographically closer regional cinemas of Egypt and India, but to the tensions within Iranian society too, as people turned against the decadence of the middle-class Pahlavi regime. It covers the character types which would have been familiar to viewers in the country, the strongly macho filmic terrain and it even makes the case for some more interesting talents among the evident dross (I am particular intrigued by Samuel Khachikian’s work). Narrated by the director Ehsan Khoshbakht (himself a programmer at Il Cinema Ritrovato), it exudes authority as much as it provides a fascinating insight to a largely lost filmic history.

CREDITS
Director/Writer Ehsan Khoshbakht احسان خوشبخت; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at Watershed, Bristol, Friday 26 July 2019.

Two 2017 Lebanese Documentaries by Women: Panoptic and A Feeling Greater Than Love

Lebanon is one of the most stable countries in the Middle East (although it certainly hasn’t always been that way) and one of the most politically progressive. It is a country with a wide range of religious practices and ways of living, despite its small size, and it’s perhaps no surprise that a number of women have been involved in filmmaking in the country (for example, Jocelyn Saab, who recently died, was a pioneer back in the 1970s). Lebanon’s troubled recent history forms the basis of the two documentaries I review below, both directed by women, and both made in 2017.

Continue reading “Two 2017 Lebanese Documentaries by Women: Panoptic and A Feeling Greater Than Love”

Criterion Sunday 162: Ratcatcher (1999)

It’s very easy, I think, to imagine all of Lynne Ramsay’s films as being suffused with bleakness, especially when you cast your eye over any given plot summary. Ratcatcher, after all, starts with a classic bit of misdirect as Ryan, a cherubic young boy being dragged off by his mother to see his dad, spots his friend James (William Eadie) playing by the canal, and so hides from his mum and goes down to James, where they get in a play fight and Ryan drowns while James runs off in confusion and guilt. Almost as quickly, then, we realise that it’s James who is the centre of the film, a gaunt angular boy who even at the best of times seems to be carrying the woes of the world. Other characters are hardly having less of a time of it than James, not least Margaret (Leanne Mullen), the slightly older girl he meets, who is callously exploited by the older boys around them, but who forms a quite playful friendship with James. And therein I think is a lot of Ramsay’s storytelling power, in contrasting the bleakness of the narrative and the setting (a dour early-70s Glasgow during a binmen’s strike), with moments of pure escapism and fantasy, or the occasional respite of innocent play. The key recurring motif is of James in a field of long grass as he imagines the perfect home the family will move to, away from the decay and the rot and the dereliction. Somehow this balances the Bressonian sense of doom, or a grim fatality reminiscent of many Russian filmmakers, leaving an indelible impression of the debut feature of one of Britain’s finest working filmmakers.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Ramsay’s three earlier short films are included, best of all being Gasman (1998), a really fine bit of storytelling done in 15 minutes, a fractured family story set at Christmas against a background (familiar from her other short films) of an impoverished Scottish milieu. It’s seen through the eyes of the kids — low camera angles, lots of telling details caught by the camera — who are confused by new developments in their emotionally distant father’s life. Bleak, but great.
  • Alongside it are Kill the Day (1996) — which has a nice sense of fractured time, bleak shards of a story and a reverie-like atmosphere that would find fruition in the feature — and Small Deaths (1996) — a little collection of vignettes from a young girl’s life suggestive of the pain of growing up and becoming socialised into a world of violence.
  • There’s a 20-minute video interview with Ramsay, as she talks through her (at that point, fairly brief) career and the inception of Ratcatcher from story to production, and notably the casting of her young non-professional actors.
  • Finally, there’s a gallery of still photographs taken during production, which further emphasise the sort of aesthetic Ramsay was aiming for, based as much in photography as in film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Lynne Ramsay; Cinematographer Alwin Küchler; Starring William Eadie; Length 94 minutes.

Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Thursday 27 July 2000 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Sunday 27 January 2019).

Talk to Me (2007)

I’m still of the opinion that Kasi Lemmons is among the most underrated of directors currently working (if, as ever with African-American women directors, not nearly enough). Her film Black Nativity was largely ignored (though delightfully odd), and here, working within a fairly mainstream period biopic vein, she manages to wring something that feels fresh. Of course it helps to have such a great cast — and Cheadle, Ejiofor and, most of all, Taraji P. Henson are on top form. It takes the story of a Washington DC radio personality, Petey Greene (whom I’d never heard of, but that’s on me), and uses it as a starting point to make a story of America in the 60s and 70s. It’s not perhaps the deepest of works, and undoubtedly it takes liberties with the real Petey Greene’s story, but it works as a film and it’s made with grace and passion.

Talk to Me film posterCREDITS
Director Kasi Lemmons; Writers Michael Genet and Rick Famuyiwa; Cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine; Starring Don Cheadle, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Taraji P. Henson, Martin Sheen; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Tuesday 10 January 2017.

La Belle saison (Summertime, 2015)

Who amongst us isn’t a sucker for likeable sun-dappled French lesbian romances set against the background of feminist struggles in the early-1970s? This film focuses on a romance between two unlikely women — a young farmer’s daughter, Delphine (Izïa Higelin, apparently better known as a singer), and Carole, a Parisian feminist activist (Cécile de France, who despite her name is actually Belgian). Delphine struggles to hide her feelings from her rural family and friends, so moves to Paris, where she quickly falls in with the ostensibly straight Carole at a feminist meeting. This setting is familiar from earlier works like Agnès Varda’s L’Une chante, l’autre pas (1977), but it’s captured well here, with the fierce political polemics and passionate leafletting in support of a shared cause. The two women fall for one another of course, though not all the plot contortions are believable. Nor can I hardly speak to the emotional truth of what it is to be a woman in love with another woman, but I’m also willing to believe that the writers and director of this probably know more than the guy behind, say, Blue Is the Warmest Colour. Still, the performances by the two leads are vibrant and really nicely done, so I liked this film.

Summertime film posterCREDITS
Director Catherine Corsini; Writers Corsini and Laurette Polmanss; Cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie; Starring Cécile de France, Izïa Higelin, Noémie Lvovsky; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Monday 18 July 2016.