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

#FallMoviePreview

With summer winding down, Hollywood is gearing up for their prestige film season. And with a one-year-old at home it has become increasingly difficult to get out to a movie theater, so this new trend started by Netflix to stream Oscar bait couldn’t have come at a better time for me. My thirty-year-old cinematic purist self would’ve screamed, “You’re tarnishing the purity of the experience!” but my almost forty-year-old self is like, “Let’s stream everything! Who’s got time to go to a theater?”

Here are my most anticipated films of the 2019 Fall Movie season:

  1. The Irishman – Oh thank heaven for Netflix! I don’t think I could find the time to escape to a theater for over three hours, and I’ll likely have to watch this one in chunks. Scorsese, DeNiro, Pacino, Pesci all in their element and Anna Paquin primed for a mid-career revival. I have high, high, hopes for this one.
  2. Marriage Story – the buzz on this one is strong, and the trailers have been excellent. Noah Baumbach is long overdue for a big popular breakthrough as his films have always been niche, and Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson look to be at the top of their game. This has the feel of Kramer vs. Kramer by way of Woody Allen if he had a millienial’s EQ. Again, thank heaven for Netflix, as I would otherwise not likely be able to get out to this one and its domestic drama looks well suited to emmerse yourself in at home.
  3. 1917 – Sam Mendes looks to do for WWI here what Christopher Nolan did for WWII in Dunkirk. This looks like an immaculately shot, edited and staged piece of tick-tock wartime suspense with some big emotional payoff. This has Oscars written all over it, and will probably worth the trip to the theater for the experience.
  4. A Hidden Life – Terrence Malick is back, and this three-hour biopic looks to be more like The New World in style than his more recent contemporary endeavors. The buzz on this is his best in years…but it’s still three hours long, and man, do I wish this was streaming, though arguably you’d want to see these images on the biggest screen possible.
  5. Ad Astra – Of all the film’s on the list this one I am most skeptical about. Could it be an Interstellar style masterpiece, or a boring chore? James Gray is one of the best directors yet to make a great film. Brad Pitt is the star power. It’s nice to see Ruth Negga is also onboard, but the rest of the cast all seem a bit tired: Donald Sutherland, Tommy Lee Jones, and Liv Tyler. The trailers have been hit or miss, but there’s still tons of promise here.

Also of interest:

Color Out of Space

Jojo Rabbit

Joker

What films are you looking most forward to this fall season?

Written by D. H. Schleicher

Literary and Cinematic Hat Tricks

Anil's Ghost: A Novel

“Most of the time in our world, truth is opinion.” – pg 101, Anil’s Ghost

In the chaos of war-torn Sri Lanka in the 1980’s, a Sri Lankan born forensic anthropologist trained in Britain and America, returns to her homeland on behalf of a human rights group and teams up with an archaeologist to solve the mysteries of unidentified skeletons, as likely to be remains from an ancient burial site as they are to be the recently desecrated and burned corpses of victims of terrorism left in a jungle ditch.

While reading Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost, a novel so rich in immutable sadness and beauty I’m not even sure what happened at the end, only that it was beautiful and sad and unforgettable like the very best and weird dreams are, I started to think about the run Ondaatje was on when he published it. Most artists are lucky if they produce one great work in their lifetime, and the masters can typically eek out three great works if they are prolific enough over many decades. It’s absolutely staggering to think that Anil’s Ghost came directly on the heels of In the Skin of a Lion and The English Patient. There is absolutely no doubt that this tryptic represents Ondaatje at the very height of his literary prowess, and his ability to churn out these three masterpieces one right after the other is something of a miracle. How many novelists or film auteurs have performed this hat trick, having produced their three greatest works sequentially? I scanned across my favorite authors and filmmakers to see if anyone matched Ondaatje (realizing of course this would be a highly subjective exercise based on my own opinions), and I would dare my fellow writers, readers, and film buffs to do the same and see what they come up with… Continue reading

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

When in Doubt Think about Ghosts

“When in doubt, think about ghosts.”

This is what director David Lynch told actor Russ Tamblyn while shooting a key scene for the original Twin Peaks in an attempt to get the right reaction. And it worked. I vividly recalled that scene, and man, Russ Tamblyn was all kinds of spooky looking, obviously thinking about ghosts.

It’s these great little tidbits that make Room to Dream such an enjoyable, and often weird, read for fans of surrealist extraordinaire David Lynch – a man who seems like he must have had a tragic, horrible upbringing to be able to tap into such pain and darkness, yet seemingly didn’t (by any account, his or another). Here is a man who had a Norman Rockwell upbringing only to obsess over the seamy underbelly of the white picket fence world he both loved and railed against.

The semi-autobiography has alternating mirrored chapters (it is eerily its own doppelgänger) about the same events  – one from the point of view of David Lynch’s friends, family, and colleagues and then one from his point of view. It is long and rambling and very detailed. Though none of the back-stories on the productions of his films were previously unknown to me, someone who has studied and read about Lynch for decades, I especially enjoyed those walks down memory lane to Philadelphia and the Eraserhead days. The meat of the book is in those delicious little tidbits and the altered views of what happened…Lynch sometimes disagrees with (or doesn’t remember) what the others say happened. Continue reading