Tag Archives: crime

Opening Night at the 57th New York Film Festival: THE IRISHMAN

[Credit: Slashfilm]

THE IRISHMAN. Country: USA. Director: Martin Scorsese. Screenwriter: Steven Zaillian, based on the book “I Hear You Paint Houses” by Charles Brandt. Cast: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Anna Paquin, Harvey Keitel, Bobby Cannavale, Ray Romano, Jesse Plemons, Jack Huston, Kathryne Narducci, Stephanie Kurtzuba. Release Date: November 1, 2019 (limited), and November 27, 2019 (Netflix). Language: English, Italian. Runtime: 209 minutes. Venue: Walter Reade Theater, Lincoln Center.

Mostly Indies Rating: Instant Classic. A+

I’m going to say it. The Irishman is, bar none, quintessential Martin Scorsese, a director intimately acquainted with the dark, tortured heart of the underbelly, and who continues to find new ways to tell compelling stories that will make you laugh out loud and cringe in horror at the same time. If he chose to stop making movies and go out into the sunset, this would be the perfect vehicle to end a career that has now spawned six decades and a body of work that many would kill to possess. This is, no doubt, a director’s masterpiece, an artist at the very peak, expressing a familiar story that feels vivid and crisp, full of energy, life, and ultimately, sadness.

Reader, this is why we go to movies. We want visceral stories of people caught in circumstances mainly of their own doing, maybe or maybe not learning their lessons. Stories don’t need to be only about heroes and The Irishman does not contain a single one, Back in the days of Unions and when the mob ruled the world, men “did things”, took late night trips to work, and neglected family in the name of prosperity, power, politics, and the American Dream.

Sheeran “The Irishman” ‘painted houses’, which came to be known in mob terminology as something quite different involving a visit, an armed gun, and blood splatter on a wall. Sheeran, per his confession to Charles Brandt who wrote the book “I Heard You Paint Houses” (which gets displayed in titles over a black screen, a wink to Jean Luc Godard’s experimental style) started small, as most future gangsters did, acting as a truck driver and early on in one of the film’s flashbacks makes the fated if you will acquaintance of Russell Bufalino (Pesci, who coming out of retirement, this time only employs his watchful eyes as a means of using violence as a necessary thing, and does so to incredible effect). Sheeran soon found himself ascending the ladder of prominence in the underworld by being a ruthless killer-for-hire, one you just did not cross with if you knew what was good for you.

A quartet of giants: Scorsese, Pesci, Pacino, and De Niro, at opening night of The Irishman in its World Premiere.

Today, however, instead of being a lethal weapon, Sheeran gets introduced not by an act of violence but by soft doo-wop music as the camera snakes into an old person’s home where he now resides, alone, waiting for us to tell his story. Scorsese moves Sheeran’s account in furious back and forth manner, often punctuating a flashback scene with another shocking image from another event, as the movie then segues into a lengthy trip to Detroit to cover for the murder of a rather notorious teamster.

That notorious teamster is none other than Jimmy Hoffa, and played by the lion that is Al Pacino. Larger than life, Hoffa comes into the narrative about 45 minutes in to quite easily take over the story from Sheeran, who stands by quietly, acting as friend and advisor, merely serving as the power behind the throne. Pacino plays his Hoffa as a man who, despite the changes in power, will not relent, and doesn’t even comprehend that perhaps his time has passed, a thing that seals his fate. It is an electric performance that could easily go over the top (and in one scene when Hoffa loses it as his well-known battle with then Sen. Robert Kennedy (Jack Huston), he almost resuscitates his caricature of power in Dick Tracy), and it is one that I think is guaranteed to garner Pacino a Best Actor Oscar.

There is so much energy in Pacino’s portrayal that when he makes his untimely exit an hour before closing credits, the movie threatens to lose some steam. [After all, this is not only a movie about the murder of Hoffa but the aftermath of a life of crime. Sheeran has confessed in his account to Brandt that he was the one who killed Hoffa, which is still up to much debate. It doesn’t really matter; Sheeran isn’t exactly telling us the pure truth from the word go: he just serves as the mouthpiece to tell a long-winded, serpentine story to match the fashion that he gets introduced in the lengthy first shot of the picture.] If The Irishman does lose some of its energy it is mainly due because many of its characters are now aging and dying in jail and the ones we met at the beginning entered the stage with a hilarious time stamp of how they died, which was usually, in a rather bloody manner. Maybe crime does not pay after all.

Now, for the technical: much has been said about Scorsese’s use of VFX to bring the actors either to look younger (as he does with De Niro, Pacino, Pesci, and Keitel) or older (Cannavale). I can’t say that the technique threw me out of the story one second, even when some scenes in which Pacino or De Niro get into physical altercations might betray the actors’ age. It just feels organic to the entire product,

Another thing I want to point out is the way Scorsese has embraced the mundane into his epic story. Early on, the drive to Detroit features Kathryne Narducci (who plays Pesci’s wife) vocally expressing her need to have rest stops to catch a smoke. Later on, another car drive yields a conversation about fish that ventures into the style of Tarantino.

However, most notably is a running narrative featuring Sheeran’s interaction with his daughter Peggy (Lucy Gallina as a young girl and Anna Paquin as an adult). All throughout, the mainly non verbal role watches Sheeran, wide eyed and communicating so much, as she comes to realize her father may be involved in much more than “just work.” It’s a sequence that ends in pain for Sheeran once the inevitable happens and he is left alone to walk on crutches and need the aid of a home attendant.

This is probably when the last and most painful of the many layers of skin gets peeled back in The Irishman. Once we reach this level of the nadir of a gangster, who even now refuses to disclose where the bodies are buried, we realize how nihilistic Scorsese’s film was all the time. All that buoyant music that plays in the background, those flashy Cadillacs and lavish parties, all the appearance of power for power’s sake has been reduced to one last moment in which a broken shell of a man now sits alone, facing the camera, with no one to tell his story, and much less, no one to care for him.

Issa Lopez’s Dark Fantasy TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID

TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID (Siempre Vuelven). Country, Mexico. Director: Issa Lopez. Screenwriter: Issa Lopez. Cast: Paola Lara, Juan Ramon Lopez, Hansel Castillas, Rodrigo Cortes, Danis Guerrero, Tenoch Huerta. Release Date: August 21, 2019. VOD availability: Shudder. Runtime: 80 minutes.

Mostly Indies:

On the heels of having seen Bunuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles comes Issa Lopez, a director whose work I am not familiar with but who seems to have borrowed a leaf from the nihilism ever present in some of the Spanish director’s Mexican work during the 50s. Her movie Tigers Are Not Afraid might be playing at an arthouse theater near you but you can catch it via Shudder, and I highly recommend it. It is a dark fable, a fantasy about a young girl, the symbolically named Estrella (Paola Lara), who starts the movie by barely surviving a school shooting. Her reaction, however, proves to be chilling: these are children who have grown accustomed to a life of ever present violence, It has become so rampant that she seems to have toughened up her grit. As long as she has her mother, she will be fine.

Except that she doesn’t; Estrella’s mother has disappeared and in the middle of this senseless violence Estrella makes a wish to see her again. The scene where she sits down in her living room, alone, no food on the table, is heart-breaking. I dare you to watch this one scene without feeling a pain in your heart. Estrella, who’s become the latest victim of gang violence, cannot yet grasp the severity of her own situation. It’s only when a nocturnal scare following a visit with echoes of Hamlet’s father sends Estrella into the streets seeking refuge in a gang of boys led by El Shine (Juan Ramon Lopez), that her eyes finally wake up.

However, the boys could not care less for her — a girl could place them in evidence to the Huasca gang whom they fear, and who are hunting them down. Only when El Shine has Estrella prove her bravery does the gang take her in. Even so, the kids wander a destroyed city, squatting in abandoned homes, trying to survive at the base level while avoiding detection.

Issa Lopez has constructed a story that is at times difficult to watch with its depictions of innocence defiled through trauma and an ever present sense that there is no escaping this hell. In many ways these are the same children that I saw in Monos, another movie in which youth has been perverted by powers that serve anarchy. Both movies depict realities that are strikingly similar to one another: in Colombia, there are child soldiers; in Mexico, there are children left homeless in places like the nameless city that seems a relic of itself. The use of the fantastical, so present in magic realism, acclimates itself rather well to chilling effect in Tigers Are Not Afraid. I like Lopez’s voice and look forward to seeing more of her in the future..

Head Bitches in Charge: THE KITCHEN Puts the Women Up Front in This Uneven Crime Drama.

THE KITCHEN. Country, USA. Director, Andrea Berloff. Screenwriters, Andrea Berloff, Ollie Masters, and Ming Doyle, based on the comic book by Masters and Doyle. Cast: Melissa Mccarthy, Tiffany Haddish, Elisabeth Moss, Domnhall Gleeson, James Badge Dale, Brian D’Arcy James, Common, Margo Martindale, Bill Camp, Jeremy Bobb. Runtime, 102 minutes. Venue, AMC Village 7. Mostly Indies rating, C+

You would think that stepping off her excellent portrayal of greed and miserabilism in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Melissa McCarthy would continue the trend into more dramatic fare. Her current entry, Andrea Berloff’s flat The Kitchen, places McCarthy in a dramatic limbo, sandwiched between Tiffany Haddish — who actually fares better considering her latest outings have been comedies — and Elisabeth Moss, who does wonders with a part that has next to no lines. McCarthy’ part, we understand, is meant to evoke sympathy, a woman who discovers empowerment and her own place in the world even if that world is the underbelly of society and dominated by men who aren’t ready to let go of that power just yet.

It’s not that McCarthy is bad in the movie; she’s quite good, as usual, and sports truly beautiful 70s hair. It’s the movie itself that doesn’t quite know, it seems, how to fully develop her character, or if she understands the repercussions that come with her choice as her character moves from situation to situation and stakes get higher.

But before I get there, here is the synopsis: three abused wives of mob men who’ve been arrested in Ann FBI sting find themselves without a penny to their name. An opportunity arises to collect some back-owed money, and this soon morphs into greater chances to acquire footing by running their husbands affairs. Things don’t quite bode well with the men in the business, who decide to retaliate, and it’s only time before the husbands themselves get out. In the interim, the women start to acquire power within the settings of the City, going as far as to lay claim to neighborhoods and accomplish serious dealings with a major monster played by Bill Camp. Rifts start to appear between Ruby (Tiffany Haddish) and Kathy (McCarthy) over the use of money and power. As it turns out, and with good reason, Ruby will turn out to be more power-hungry than she first presented herself. That will pose a problem neither Kathy nor anyone could see coming.

So far, so good: the movie in concept does have a solid ground to stand on. There will be the inevitable comparison to last year’s Widows (itself an equally pulpy, silly story of crosses and double crosses that force the widows of mobsters to stand their own). I think that it’s mainly the presentation itself. For so much story, paring it does to a mere 100 minutes makes it feel rushed and superficial. For the most part we don’t really get to know who these women truly are. There is really no major build up to any showdown so any conflict resolution seems almost cardboard—okay, but nothing more. Other than Elisabeth Moss’ Claire — single handedly the movie’s highlight and the one with the most character development and the one the movie’s plot treats most shabbily — we only experience them as three women transitioning into power and eliminating anything that stands between them and control.

Perhaps that is all the movie wanted to say. Men may have led the path in gangster films, but now it’s the women’s turn. If only it could have made that a bit more memorable.

GOOD TIME

GOOD TIME

USA
Director: The Safdie Brothers
Runtime: 100 minutes
Language: English

Mostlyindies’ grading:

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

It’s no spoiler that in a heist movie nothing will go as planned, and nothing — not one single thing — happens according to plan in the Safdie brothers’ vibrant, pulsing second feature film Good Time which follows their equally electric debut film from 2014 Heaven Knows What. Nick Nikas (Ben Safdie) opens the film in therapy. Mentally disabled, he’s in an institution trying to improve his own quality of life that from the looks of it, seems rather dim. In the middle of a session barges in Connie (Robert Pattinson, in a career-defining role reminiscent of Pacino of a younger DeNiro) who has other plans for Nick. Once out of the facility, he recruits Nick into assisting him in a bank heist in which they walk out with about 65,000 dollars cash. Unbeknownst to them,  a dye pack has made it in with the money and once inside the getaway car, the pack explodes into a vivid red cloud, temporarily blinding both men, causing Connie to crash and then go on the run with the money and Nick. Unfortunately, Nick gets caught and arrested by the cops and winds up in a Rikers Island holding cell. Connie winds up looking up an old girlfriend Corey (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and asking her for money to get Nick out on bail, but Corey’s mother, sensing a problem, places a stop on  the cards and that scene grinds to a screeching halt.

So, without any other options, Connie makes the bold move to bust Nick out of jail and hope for the best. Needless to say, this is easier said than done, and I really don’t want to say any more about the movie because it offers so many unpredictable twists and turns to its labyrinthine plot that I’d be destroying the experience for you. Clearly, the Safdies know their way with mood and setting and manage to imbue Good Time with a screaming nocturnal palette that constantly seems to reflect a hyper sense of alertness without a safety net. A detour into a more quiet moment offers a very New York sense of humor along with a teenage actress (Tallah Webster) that is more than a match for Pattinson in every scene she’s in, which are many. Once it returns to its grittiness, Good Time revels in its own nightmare and only builds upon it until it seems that the tension must give way with a snap. This, in short, is a muscular, mean story that burns in neon colors while offering a sense of desperation, brotherly love, and a twisted version of an American Dream, even when we as an audience know that there is  no light at the end of this tunnel but a sigh that says No Exit.






WIND RIVER

WIND RIVER

USA
Director: Taylor Sheridan
Runtime: 110 minutes
Language: English

Midway through Wind River, a character roughly says, “This murder is practically solving itself,” and that, my dear friends, is a problem. Taylor Sheridan once again dives into the underbelly of society, but where his incursions redefined the Western in Hell or High Water and danced with horror in Sicario, both films which yielded memorable performances from its shady as heck characters (and a sympathetic one from Emily Blunt, a female FBI agent tossed in the middle of an increasing set of odds in Sicario), Wind River, while correct and serviceable as a crime thriller, never truly manages to find that dark tone that would have made it the standout sleeper of the late summer. It’s a shame because with an action taking place in the desolate mountains of Wyoming in the Indian Reservation of Wind River, there was plenty of material to convey an atmospheric sense of a larger corruption at hand, something truly unsettling.

The best scene is, as a matter of fact, its most disturbing. The film opens to a young woman dashing barefoot through the snow, escaping an unknown danger before she collapses to the elements and passes out of the story, in body. Enter Jeremy Renner, a game tracker separated from his Indian wife, who finds the dead woman’s body and has to team up with the nearest FBI agent sent all the way from Vegas to survey the crime scene, and with her report, justify the need to send out more agents or close the case. When she appears it’s under the form of Elizabeth Olsen, and at first, as it always is in these movies, her presence is, for the locals, meant to be merely perfunctory, a blip in a series of nothings in a place where nothing really happens. However, a correct assessment of the way rhe woman — Natalie — died doesn’t match up despite the coroner’s report. However, the coroner can’t justify homicide. Olsen can’t call for more agents, so it’s up to her and Renner to take matters into their own hands.

I’m going to say that perhaps this is what happens when someone who’s barely directed takes a film as ambitious as this into his own hands in the hopes of delivering a strong product and coming up just a shade short. Wind River is what you’d call a serviceable, above average procedural that takes you from start to end without delving too much in the horror of it all — even the necessary flashback scene that sets the plot in motion feels flat and done without style or any sense of suspense or even terror — but somehow it just didn’t quite go that extra mile to stay in my memory and thus, remains as just another good movie with solid performances by Renner, Olsen, Gil Birmingham, and Jon Bernthal in a small but pivotal role.






NEW ON DVD: THE ARDENNES (D’ARDENNEN)

THE ARDENNES

Belgium
Director: Robin Pront
Runtime: 96 minutes
Language: Dutch / French

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

A striking opening sequence informs you all you need to know about the events that will transpire in Robin Pront’s debut feature film The Ardennes. A man crashes into a pool, making his escape with a young woman from the scene of a crime. When she asks about the man’s brother, he screams at her to drive off — the brother in question has fallen to the police. Moments later, we see their getaway vehicle in flames, the woman crying in horror. It’s a simple setup but one that sets a chilling tone to a movie that is brutal and cold as the brother left behind.

Four year pass after this short prologue. Dave and Sylvie (Jeroen Perceval and Veerle Baetens, formerly seen in 2013’s The Broken Circle Breakdown) have gone cold turkey from the drug scene and are trying to make an honest living. Unknown to Kenny (Kevin Janssens), Dave’s brother, who is introduced gazing a picture of Sylvie in his jail cell (shared with Jan Bivjoet as an avid horticulturist with a decidedly murderous streak, my God is this guy creepy in every movie he appears in), both Dave and Sylvie are a couple. Once Kenny gets out of jail you would think he’d reform and try to live a normal existence, but once you’ve known the taste of crime and easy money, old habits die hard.

From then on, The Ardennes is a slow-burn crime drama that threatens to explode at any moment. Kenny clearly is the loose cannon of this threesome, having learned nothing during his stay in prison. Dave’s attempts at watching over him go nowhere, and as Kenny spirals down into a world of nefarious people and also attempts to insinuate himself into Sylvie’s life, the movie threatens to explode at any moment with unspeakable violence. However, Robin Pront saves all that bloody mess for the gruesome finale that has almost Jacobean levels splattered all over it. You could say that there is a message embedded in the fabric of The Ardennes — don’t ever, ever, date your psychopathic brother’s ex-girl — but it’s safe to say this is a pretty good thriller that with its forbidding, moody look, hardness of its characters who never amounted to much, and spiraling into nihilism, recalls the best of noir with its seedy, fated characters and a pervasive sense of the walls closing in no matter where you go.






THE TRANSFIGURATION

 

THE TRANSFIGURATION
USA
Director: Michael O’Shea
Runtime: 97 minutes
Language: English

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

The Transfiguration is an unusual horror movie in that it uses elements of the supernatural — the vampire genre — to transpose it to an urban setting in which a young motherless boy just starting, it seems, to go through puberty, experiences an intense attraction to blood and vampire lore and gives into his dark desires. This is a pretty clever approach to the whole vampire context because not only does it hark to the cases of Caius Vomitus Deivois and Roderick Ferrell, two men convicted of committing truly heinous acts of violence against innocent people for the sake of awakening dark forces and becoming all-powerful, it also could very well be a coming of age of a boy adrift in a society that has forgotten and failed him, with disastrous results.

There is a striking similarity in the actor who plays Milo (Eric Ruffin) to the one in Moonlight (Alex R Hibbert). Both are wide-eyed and extremely taciturn to the point of being mute, both are teased and seen as freaks, and both live in a fragmented home where no parent currently gives guidance. The crucial difference between Chiron from Moonlight and Milo from The Transfiguration is that at least Chiron, for all of his pent-up stoicism, does find substitute parents who take him into their home and give him a place to belong, to be himself. Milo has none of that; a home in complete disarray, a brother suffering from shell-shock after serving the war who sits zombie-like in front of the TV watching time go by, and the ghost of a dead mother.

Hope, or something close, comes in the form of his neighbor Sophie (Chloe Levine) with whom he strike a tentative yet growing friendship. She has issues all her own and the movie never delves into her private life except for a quick glance at a bloody arm in one scene which indicates she’s a cutter as a defense mechanism for coping with family abuse. While bonding, Milo brings up the topic of vampires. When Sophie raves about the Twilight series, Milo, just like the aforementioned Deivois, expresses that his favorites are Let the Right One In and NosferatuTwilight doesn’t seem realistic enough (and once he does see the video later on he confirms it to Sophie). Milo seems to want to share more of his secret attraction to blood but is equally tentative as he doesn’t want to chase her away.

In the interim, Milo begins to give in to his needs, and here is where the movie takes a dark, dark turn, showcasing scenes that are better left to the viewer to see than for me to describe them. However, discovery of his secret is imminent, and Milo, unable to control his desires any longer, has to face the fact that while he may not be a vampire per se, he is actually just an evil person who has lost all control of his impulses. Director Michael O’Shea leaves it unresolved if Milo actively orchestrates the events that transpire after he commits an act of almost unspeakable horror or is probably wanting to be caught — and stopped — but The Transfiguration is a quiet little urban horror movie that will creep you out with how mundane it looks, and how deadly precocious evil just may be.






FROM AFAR

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

 

He’s a loner. An older man of few words who works repairing dentures and seems to have a fragile but polite relationship with his briefly seen sister. The camera opens to Armando walking the seedier area of Caracas, Venezuela, following a lean, dark-skinned boy into a bus and offering him a wad of cash. No words exchanged, just cash. Cut to Armando, sitting on a couch in his dark apartment, emotionless, empty eyes, telling the boy to take his shirt off, and lower his pants to just below his glutes. Off-screen, the sound of rubbing, which should by now tell you what this is about, followed by some sterile moans, and then his crisp, curt voice, telling the hustler to leave.

Armando meets another hustler and this time things don’t go as planned: the boy, Elder (Luis Silva, wiry and coltish) is a mass of reactions first followed by very little thought. He’s not as submissive as the others; when Armando takes him back to his place the scene ends with violence and theft and Armando with a black eye.

Still, he remains impassive, unperturbed, and empty. When he’s not following Elder around in ways that clearly cross the line between simple masochistic interest and veer deep into the perturbed, he quietly stalks his father, who seems to be some highly paid executive. In the interim, after Elder gets beaten by some thugs, Armando takes him in and both begin a very ginger dance of older man as mentor and younger man as protegee (willing or not). Conversations are stiff, stilted, but eventually reveal layers of depth: both have absentee fathers.

An act of theft from the still ready to run Elder segues into an act of defiance that shifts the balance of power between him and Armando. Elder begins to demonstrate hints of affection, a thing that doesn’t go unnoticed by both his pals and his mother who sees right through the two’s acquaintance and guesses correctly, throwing him out of the house. And at the fringes of the movie, Armando’s father, an office executive going through his business as Armando observes from a distance.

Much like Laszlo Nemes’ Son of Saul, Lorenzo Vigas’ From Afar (Desde alla) doesn’t give you more information than you need and plays its cards tightly against its chest. Dialog is minimal at best, and more information is passed along by glances, hints, non-verbal cues. Even then, this sense of walking in the dark and knowing only what one needs to know is suspense at its best, because from the get-go, by its very nature, the relationship between Armando and Elder wouldn’t go past a transaction and a cold, sexual act. Vigas, however, has other intentions up his sleeve, and as all of the pieces start to show up, a clearer picture of what the real story is about starts to form.

From Afar is as nihilistic and ugly as the location where it takes place. Armando discloses so little, but his actions say much more, and reveal a man about to burst in anger for some unknown harm (there is the implication he’s a victim of sexual abuse, or something truly awful), but so restrained that his one scene of dominance and aggression comes as a revelation precisely because he’s so far presented himself as a man who seems to want nothing, care for no one, exist to live and just that. Alberto Castro, recently seen in Chile’s The Club also playing a tormented gay man, is restrained to a fault, disclosing next to  nothing about himself, his family, even why he continues to pursue Elder. If anything, this is also a story of trust — trust established after a long, uncomfortable mating dance, cemented, and then smashed into a million little pieces. Vigas’ debut film is a lightning bolt that gives a strong voice to a country like Venezuela, a country who tends not to register in the US (although that trend seems to be reversing thanks to 2015’s El LIbertador). Like Eastern Boys with whom it has been compared (and which was a part of the 2014 Rendezvous with French Cinema selection), it brings forth a slice of gay life that tends to be set aside in lieu of lighter fare. Highly recommended.