What Kind of Fish was it in #TheIrishman

Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) and Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) debate Hoffa’s next move. © 2019 Netlfix US, LLC. All rights reserved.

As a Philly guy, I loved the scene early on in The Irishman where Robert DeNiro (whose calm “old man looking back on his life” narration wraps a warm blanket over the film) says there is a spot in The Schuylkill River where so many hitmen have tossed guns that if you dredged that spot you could supply a whole army.

Martin Scorsese’s latest mob epic is filled with those kinds of details, like a blink-and-you-miss-it or gasp-when-you-do-see-it quietly operatic and beautiful shot of the Twin Towers during another dump-the-murder-weapon scene later in Frank Sheeran’s career.

The Irishman is a tale of a bygone era – of union bosses and mobster empires – the old men looking back on their lives after getting caught and reminiscing on the camaraderie and the minutia that becomes so detailed and particular as to seem ethereal…a dream world.

POTENTIAL SPOILERS

There’s a great scene during the tense build up to the inevitable (Sheeran’s alleged particulars when he’s forced to be the mob’s deliverer of reckoning to his dear friend, Jimmy Hoffa) where the mob’s errand boy rags on Hoffa’s son about a fish having just been in the backseat. What kind of fish was it? You just go in and pick up some fish from some guy without knowing what kind of fish it was?

Scorsese’s film is a very particular type of thing. You know going in exactly what type of fish this is.

“In the Still of the Night” is the film’s musical soul, playing over key scenes and transitions, while other hits of yesteryear play as only Scorsese could let them play. The film unfolds at a leisurely, moody pace – perfect for the streaming era we live in – like teenage lovers who grew into an old married couple would sway on a dancefloor during their favorite love song.

Man, we know Pacino so well, but he’s absolute gangbusters as Hoffa. I can’t get over how good he is, how enjoyable it is to watch him. And DeNiro’s iconic shoulder shrugs and aw-shucks looks and eyebrow lifts. It’s exactly how we want to remember him.

Then there is Anna Paquin as Peggy Sheeran – Frank’s daughter, the judger, the only one who calls him out on his “I did it all to take care of and protect my family” bullshit. The role doesn’t quite work as well as I think Scorsese intended it to – there’s no getting around the fact that she is underwritten, but she’s also symbolic. “Why?” is no doubt a memorable line, and Paquin delivers it well – body tense, sitting, lip quivering, eyes judging, but voice clear, calm

The film closes with Sheeran in a retirement home, alone on Christmas Eve, a priest there to hear a confession Sheeran never delivers. When the priest gets up to leave, Sheeran asks him to leave the door open…just a little bit. Why? For the truth to slip in? For forgiveness? To make sure no one is out there waiting to take him out? Or is the door left open for Scorsese, the consummate storyteller of tall tales of sinners and saints? We hope that door stays open, just a little bit, for him tell that same old story, one more time.

Written by D. H. Schleicher

We Are Not Afforded the Luxury of Being Average in #Waves

High school wrestling champ Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) seems to be living his best life. He’s a star athlete with an eye on nationals and a college scholarship, the life of the party, has a beautiful girlfriend (Alexa Demie), plays the piano, and lives in an upper middle class house in a Miami suburb with his successful and very present parents (Sterling K. Brown and Renee Elise Goldsberry) and younger sister Emily (Taylor Russell). But nothing is as simple as it seems on the surface. Everyone has multiple sides, and Tyler is a ticking time-bomb – over-stimulated, over-worked and living in a pressure cooker of unjustly high expectations and toxic masculinity. Harrison is absolutely brilliant in his portrayal, playing for the second time this year an African-American high-schooler who seems perfect on the outside but is just one perceived slight away from blowing his top. In Luce, he was scarily in-control, while here in the emotionally seismic Waves, he’s hanging on by a thread. The tension builds in the first half of the film to shrieking, anxious effect.

I’ve probably already said too much. The less you know about Trey Edward Shults’ Waves, the better. I went in cold, riding high on the festival circuit buzz, and having been riveted previously by Shults’ ode to addiction and family, Krisha.

(POTENTIAL SPOILERS)

Waves is one of those films that takes a sudden turn half-way through and changes POV from Tyler to Emily and her attempt to recover from tragedy by finding love with a refreshingly non-toxic male named Luke (Lucas Hedges). Shults self-analyzes the film in interviews as “a panic attack followed by a hug,” and he couldn’t be more apt. We are right there with Tyler in the midst of his breakdown, our hearts pounding, our emotions unchecked, and then the switch to Emily’s more sensitive POV is like a breath of fresh air. Shults handles the transition exquisitely. But there are no easy solutions on either side of his film of mirrors and psychological undulations. I loved the complexity of the characters and their sometimes tortured and sometimes beautiful relationships with each other. They are not always likable, but in some way they are always relatable. And every single cast member makes you feel their highs and lows, their pain and their joy.

Shults uses camera tricks (some of which I know I didn’t even process – begging for the continuous cineaste visit hoping to catch something new with each re-watch), music, light, and color to transition from scene to scene, character to character, emotion to emotion. Everything physical in the craftsmanship informs, shades, and mirrors the internal struggles of the souls aching to be loved and understood on film.

Did I mention the screenplay? There were so many great, ponderous quotes coming not just from our main characters but from peripheral influences – teachers, coaches, and preachers offering words that both comfort and taint the mindsets of the young people in the film struggling to find their way in the world. I wish I had taken notes, but I was too caught up in the moment to peel my eyes from the screen.

One quote stuck with me though, when Tyler’s father Ronald tells him, “We are not afforded the luxury of being average.”

Shults in anything but an average filmmaker, and Waves is a shattering earthquake of a film whose aftermath will leave viewers with so many troubling, wondrous, humbling things to unpack.

Written by D. H. Schleicher

Don’t Tell Me What I Can’t Do in #Harriet

There’s a great scene in Kasi Lemmon’s biopic of Harriet Tubman where our hero (Cynthia Erivo) decides to cross into freedom for the first time…alone…on foot…into a sun-drenched rolling field of wilderness. She pauses for a moment, and to the modern eye seems to be framing her hands to take a picture of the sunlight, but then you realize Harriet is reaching for it…to pull it in and wrap over her, like a shawl. Erivo’s eyes and facial expression, the simple framing of the scene, speak multitudes about what drove Tubman to do what she did against all odds, over and over again, leading slaves across the Underground Railroad into freedom. She wanted everyone to get a chance to touch that sunlight and wrap themselves in it…or die trying.

There are little specks of vibrant light like this poking through the otherwise straightforward film, giving us hints of the director who wowed us with her debut, Eve’s Bayou, all those years ago, and paint the lead character in heroic wonder. Harriet prays to God at a mythic-sized old tree, ponders a grasshopper on a blade of grass when awaking in a field, grabs at the sunlight. Her visions (historically accurate, as it is widely thought that a childhood head injury lead to recurring epileptic-like seizures which Tubman herself interpreted as visions from God) lay out her path and provide her with the fortitude to march on no matter what obstacles came her way. Many a fool was proven wrong after telling Harriet Tubman what she couldn’t…shouldn’t do.

The screenplay posits the film as a kind of historical superhero origin story while following the tropes of many slavery-era biopics. Some might wish for a little more visual bravura or deeper dives into complex internal character conflicts, but aren’t the facts of Harriet Tubman’s life amazing enough on their own? Sometimes the straight path is the right one to take, and Cynthia Erivo’s passionate performance is enough to carry the film even when the screenplay (which, of course, takes its own artistic license, especially with the fictional characters who were amalgamations of attitudes and people of the time) fails her.

Despite the trappings of sticking mostly to the classic mold, Harriet is a rousing but intimate epic, Lemmon’s best since Eve’s Bayou, and anchored by Cynthia Erivo’s bold portrayal of a real American hero. It’s an ever-timely reminder of the importance of taking action against evil rather than waiting idly by hoping for it to pass, and should sit comfortably as an enlightened piece of entertainment in high school history classes for years to come.

Written by D. H. Schleicher

For follow up, check out the Variety article on what drove Kasi Lemmons to direct Harriet.

Spilling the Beans and the Plight of a Seagull in #TheLighthouse

*Potential Spoilers Ahead*

When Robert Pattinson’s character finally “spills the beans” to Willem Dafoe’s character in Robert Egger’s grim, grimy and sea-battered The Lighthouse, he claims to be a former timber worker who killed his boss, wrestling now with his guilt at the remote coastal outpost of the film’s title. I thought, however, that he was more likely the soul of one of those dead sailors Dafoe claimed are living inside seagulls. A particular seagull, with one eye, is one of the key antagonists (along with Dafoe), but all three characters (young man, old man, and gull) might very well be one in the same in this Persona-like decent into male madness.

There are elements of The Lighthouse I admired: Dafoe’s over-the-top salty seadog ranting, the claustrophobic aspect ratio, the Nova Scotia setting, the bleak black-and-white cinematography, the seagull, and the surreal visions (a harpy of a mermaid, a slithering Neptune).

There are elements of The Lighthouse I could’ve done without: the focus on bodily functions, the insular white male insanity, the fate of the seagull, the seagull’s ultimate revenge.

There’s nothing that was particularly scary, but certain scenes and images were fittingly disturbing. Some parts were played so absurdly straight (a seemingly endless fall down twisting stairs) as to elicit laughter.

I could’ve used more story…more characters…more of the sea.

Much like Eggers’ first film, the equally grim The Witch, I can’t say I liked the film, nor would I recommend it to anyone. But I know there are many out there who would watch this and relish every stinking bit of it. So if you’re one them, enjoy.

Written by D. H. Schleicher

The Banality of Space Exploration and Human Folly in #AdAstra

In Ad Astra, lonely astronaut Roy McBride is married to his physically and psychologically draining job, which predicatably ends his marriage, and has followed in the footsteps of dear old dad, who decades earlier headed up the infamous Lima Mission to Neptune to search for extraterrestial life. The mission was assumed lost, until some crazy anti-matter flares make their way to Earth with disasterous results from – you guessed it – out Neptune way. Oh yeah, and old daddy may be the one who created this mess. So, of course, sonny boy has to go out there to see what the heck is going on, save the solar system, and wrestle with his deep-seeded father issues.

Despite Hoyte Van Hoytema’s stunning and sometimes vertigo inducing celestial cinematography and a few good stand alone sequences, James Gray’s emotionally drab and tired father-and-son / man-is-a-lonely-beast space opera is one of the biggest cinematic disappointments of recent memory.

Everyone in the film looks exhausted (Brad Pitt, Donald Sutherland, Tommy Lee Jones, Liv Tyler…even the normaly bright-eyed Ruth Negga) and it’s no surprise given the broad strokes with which all the characters are painted and the shocking banality of space travel and colonization on display. In James Gray’s near-future universe, human beings just keep getting caught up in the same old mistakes, trite archetypes, and psychological hang-ups.

Oh, look, an Applebees and Subway on the lunar colony. And pirates fighting over mines. Mars is just one giant underground bunker that looks like it was designed with cardboard packing material from Amazon.com. Out in the middle of nowhere near some random asteroid, humans are experimenting on primates, who go maliciously bonkers in an oddly thrilling sequence that plays like a revival of an abandonded sequence from Gray’s last curiosity about human exploration, The Lost City of Z. Why were we messing with primates in space? Well, it’s just because, you know, animal torture is what humans always do. And hell, it is boring as hell out there, so why not?

One of the most irritating elements of the film is Brad Pitt’s near constant, and woefully undercooked voice-over that is strung together from routine psychological check-ups and philosophy 101 inner monologue. The Tree of Life this is not. Underscoring the voice-over and anti-action are Max Richter’s minimalist tones, pale echoes of Hans Zimmer and Justin Hurwitz’s work from the superior in every way First Man. The aformentioned cinematography of Van Hoytema is technically stunning and beautiful to look at it, but it’s not married to anything of deep substance. Interstellar this is also not.

I don’t blame Gray for tapping into classic thematic tropes. Some of the best stories of all-time deal with father-and-son drama and the loneliness of human existence, but if you are going down that well tread path you need to have either something new to say or do it in an interesting way. Sadly, in his attempt to hang these tropes inside his musings on the empitness of space, Gray shows how tired and empty these ideas can sometimes be.

Written by D. H. Schleicher

Run to Crawl

Image result for crawl movie

When you have an almost-one-year-old, it becomes increasingly difficult to find time to go to the movies. I’ve had to be very selective this year.

When I heard there was a new “killer gators in a hurricane” flick, I knew I had to run to see Crawl (not to be mistaken for the dramatic film adaptation of my son’s latest milestone achieved).

Imagine someone had taken the Sharknado concept dead seriously, and replaced the sharks with gators and the tornado with a hurricane. As if I needed another reminder to never move to Florida…

Part of the fun (and success) of Crawl is the film’s earnestly suspenseful and humane tone. Continue reading

This is Us and We Are Terrifying

I was six years-old in 1986, and I have a vivid memory of the Hands Across America initiative. We were visiting my aunt’s house on the day it was to happen, and I thought that people were actually going to step out of their houses at the designated time and literally hold hands across the entire country. How disappointed I was when I eagerly ran out of my aunt’s house onto her front porch and saw no one holding hands. Jordan Peele must have had a similar memory, and he uses that sense of disappointment in hope as a set-up to his newest complex and fitfully terrifying horror opus, Us.

There’s a palpable sense of dread in the film’s 1986 prologue where a little girl wanders away from her parents at a Santa Cruz fun fair and has a harrowing experience in a house of mirrors. Later, as an adult, that same little girl finds herself back on that beach during a family vacation that leads to a home invasion by a red-suited, scissor-carrying family of shadows. Dopplegangers brood throughout Peele’s sophomore effort as a writer and director, and with a larger budget, he casts his net of ideas broader than he did in the succinctly satirical Get Out. There’s a lot going on here, and Peele has clearly found his groove in setting a unique mood, cutting tension with his now signature sense of humor, and then going all out in turning modern horror film tropes on their head. Bunnies and beaches, social commentary and mass killings, ballet and butchery…it’s all on the table, and it’s gripping, fascinating and sometimes confounding. Peele leaves no horror cliché unturned, including the twist ending, which I assumed during the first sand-tray therapy scene. In lesser hands, it could have become a bloody mess, but Peele shows complete control of his runaway train wreck. Continue reading

Is this Hell in Transit?

In ways complex, subtle and surreal, Christian Petzold has crafted another enthralling think-piece / thriller with Transit. When troubled opportunist Georg (Franz Rogowski) agrees to deliver papers to a writer looking to flee the fascist take-over of France and quickly finds the writer has committed suicide, a sea of events take place leading to Georg to Marseilles where he becomes entangled in the stories of a multitude of refugees, including the dead writer’s wife, Marie (Paula Beer), who knows not her husband is dead and has fallen into the arms of an altruistic doctor (Godeheard Giese) who passed up a passage to Mexico to stay with her while she still pines for her husband to join her.

While this bizarre love triangle (or is it a square?) built upon stolen identities and pining for those already passed on (both literally and metaphorically) is enthralling enough on its own, Petzold layers in side stories to enrich Georg’s tale. When he first arrives in Marseilles from Paris, he has to deliver bad news to the wife and young son of his traveling companion who died in transit, and he quickly becomes immersed in their loneliness. The woman (now widowed) is mute and deaf, and the boy (now orphaned) is just looking for someone to play soccer with, and both had been waiting in Marseilles for the boy’s father who was to help them all flee to the mountains. Meanwhile Georg gets distracted by his own conflicting drives to flee and stay. His feelings for the boy (who has an asthma attack after Georg takes him to an amusement park) are what lead him to the doctor and Marie, and when he falls for Marie, too, his feelings and anguish only become more twisted. Meanwhile other refugees come and go from his stage (a sickly conductor, an architect stuck with her client’s abandoned dogs), all longing for someone to listen to their story, just as Georg ends up telling his story to the proprietor of the restaurant where he, Marie, and the doctor frequent.

Based on a novel by Anna Seghers, whose original context for the story was Nazi-occupied France, Petzold makes a bold choice in assigning no definitive time period to the story…it could’ve been told then…it’s certainly potent now. Continue reading

Widows: What Went Wrong

Steve McQueen’s Widows opens with the tense inter-cutting sequences of a heist gone horribly wrong and shows us in a few propulsive minutes how four women became the widows of the film’s title. It’s a cracker jack set-up to what promises to be an emotionally explosive thriller…but what follows is two hours of slow-burn that goes nowhere thanks to an undercooked screenplay and woefully underdeveloped characters. While McQueen shows us in brilliant brevity how these women became widows, Gillian Flynn’s screenplay gives us no insight into how they became wives of criminals or why their husbands were criminals in the first place. And when the women bond together for a heist, there’s nothing in them (except for Viola Davis’ natural fierceness that comes more from her as a performer than anything evident in Flynn’s limp writing), we have no emotional investment in the outcome or belief that they can pull it off.

Widows is one of those crime thrillers full of endless, clichéd scenes designed to show us how a character is one of three things: tough as hell, corrupt as hell, or trapped in hell. McQueen does his best to eek something out of the story with crisp, perfectly framed shots of environs and exquisite camerawork. Chicago, in a grim visual poetry, arises from the ashes of this junk heap of a story as the best written character. One scene where a corrupt politician (Colin Farrell) is being chauffeured from the bad side of a neighborhood to the posh side in just a few blocks is a minor masterpiece of sociopolitical commentary on gentrification and wealth inequality. Sadly, nothing else in the film elaborates on this in any insightful way. Continue reading

Unbow Your Head in If Beale Street Could Talk

How does one even begin to unpack the layers of brilliance on display in If Beale Street Could Talk?

How does one even begin to unpack the impacts of hundreds of years of institutional racism on African-American culture, and society as a whole?

“Unbow your head, sister,” Tish’s older sister (Teyonah Parris) tells her after the revelation that Tish (Kiki Layne) is pregnant…by Fonny (Stephan James)…who is in jail…unjustly awaiting trial for a rape he did not commit. There should be no shame when amongst family, when you are in love, and when a cruel world has stacked the deck against you. Tish should hold her head high because that child was born out of love, and she and Fonny would’ve been married had he not been unfairly accused. The epic emotional confrontation that happens next, where Tish reveals this to Fonny’s parents (his mother a spiteful holy roller), is a masterclass in directing, editing, and acting, with Tish’s loving family fighting fiercely in her (and Fonny’s) corner.

If Beale Street Could Talk is above all a love story, but not just a love story between Tish and Fonny. It’s also a love story about parents (Regina King in a crowning performance, and an equally unforgettable Colman Domingo) who always believe in their children. It’s a story about love, romantic and familial and communal, in the face of the most extreme adversities.

Barry Jenkins fulfills the promise of Moonlight and takes all of his artistic elements to the next level in his gorgeous adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel. Continue reading