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THE LIGHTHOUSE is the movie event of the year.

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in Robert Eggers The Lighthouse, now in theaters. [Image from KDSK]

I’m usually a bit jittery about movies that bring a lot of anticipation bolstering their US premiere because the more the promotion, the less likely it’s warrant to deliver on its premise or be watchable past opening night. Fortunately, this wasn’t the case with Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse. Knowing next to nothing other than its bare-bones synopsis of two men stranded on a remote location tending to a lighthouse, I walked in, and let his story unfold.

The Lighthouse stars Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, two actors who have been involved in back to back projects that have only managed to cement their status as two of the best working actors in cinema today. Both star as a pair of lighthouse keepers who must take care of the building for a total of five weeks. It’s a task that sounds simple enough — do your duties, rinse and repeat — but soon enough, isolation starts to sink in, and the need for the men, who already don’t like each other, to relate to something human while asserting their own presence starts to play mind games… or does it? Pattinson’s character one night walks out into the dark open to see what looks like a mermaid swimming in the waters beyond. DaFoe stands in front of the huge beaming light of the lighthouse in complete ecstasy, but what is that tentacle quickly seen and that disappears? A sea gull turns out to be more menacing than just bothersome.

Could the night and the fog and the lighthouse itself hold some dark secret?

Robert Eggers never reveals what, in fact, might be the ghost that haunts the grounds where the fabled lighthouse stands, and that is perfect for me. Exposition and backstory are kept to a minimum, only enhancing the entire movie’s mystery and whatever it is that haunts the twosome. All we get is that the previous lighthouse keeper went insane and killed himself. Pattinson’s character longs for some peace and quiet far into the Canadian country and thought this could be a next step into achieving the goal. DaFoe has been chained to the island and the sea for 13 years, a thing that took a toll on his marriage. Meanwhile, in the present, the men go through their daily chores, making irritating small talk (well, technically, DaFoe is the one who talks the most while Pattinson, who starts out as silent as a moonless night, let’s him take center stage), engaging in petty banter over who does what.

Still from the Angelika Film Center, NYC.

The more they engage in the mundane, the farther away they creep from reality. Soon, even a simple dinner sequence becomes a nightmare of repetition in hell with two men aching companionship devolving from mates to enemies to back in a furious kaleidoscopic whirlwind. Eggers movie becomes a ferocious battle of wills to see who will remain the last madman standing, all the while the looming, sinister figure of this lighthouse, the all-knowing sentient spirit, observes without pity or passion.

This is the most cinematically gorgeous movie I have seen this entire year — or this decade, as a matter of fact. It is rare to see black and white, treated with such care that even seeing it at a two-dimensional ratio one can almost see depth in the style of deep focus, and have that morph seamlessly into German Expressionism, only to do a fade out like David Lynch’s Eraserhead towards the ambiguous end. Eggers’ movie seems as though it came out of the lens of someone living and making movies 100 years ago: it is dense, exotic to a letter, alien, mythical, and yes, haunted. Two actors helm the entire production and carry it to next-level narration, something strange and sinister, with fart-jokes and base-level humor to pepper it through as if reminding you these are two uncouth men sharing tight quarters together while the endless storm rages on and they lose their minds. I firmly believe this will a film that will be studied well past tomorrow, and a template for future directors wanting to get behind a camera to make a story come alive.

Unless anything comes along the road that can surpass this movie, I will call The Lighthouse the movie of 2019. Done.

SEVEN FROM THE 57TH NYFF: FROM THE TRAITOR TO PARASITE

Bong Joon Ho’s masterpiece Parasite, a 57th New York Film Festival Main Slate. [image from Comingsoon.net]

And just like that, the New York Film Festival has come to a close. While it does end on its usual high note of offering an entire day’s worth of selected movies to watch on encore presentations for anyone who missed their official premiere, yours truly has seen more than enough from both established and rising directors to take it as a day to rest, mull his thoughts about the cornucopia of cinema he just experienced, and give his eyes and brain a one-week rest before attempting to write anything. You see, in a compressed time-frame of four days, I was able to sit and digest a total of seven movies from the festival’s Main Slate not counting whatever I saw at home on Netflix or Prime, and also not counting the sneak premiere of Robert Eggers’ head trip The Lighthouse which is now in theaters.

Friends ask me over and over why is it that I do this. The answer is simple: love of cinema, open, unabashed, and passionate. I don’t get paid a dime to come see these movies, many which will only see US Premieres in niche cinemas like Film Forum, Angelika, Landmark, Quad, or IFC (or at the nearest art-house theater if you live elsewhere). Even worse, a handful of them might just not (I’m still waiting for Lian Ying’s A Family Tour (56NYFF, China/Taiwan) to read our shores, but I doubt that will happen. So if it remains a festival-only presentation, at least I got first dibs, saw someone else’s vision, and walked away completely satisfied. So, in a nutshell, this is pure love for the medium, experiencing storytelling that is new, not mainstream, even challenging.

The Traitor, a new film by Marco Bellocchio, due January, 2020. [image from HeyuGuys]

This year, for example, Italy was present not once but twice with Martin Eden and The Traitor (Il Traditore). I missed the first, which will come out anyway, but saw the second, due to premiere in US theaters January 31, 2020. Marco Bellocchio’s film presents a mafia drama unlike many we’ve seen here. It serves as a means to re-tell a Italy’s colored history with the Cosa Nostra, without the romance and ideation of Mario Puzo. Bellocchio’s version is grittier, and an extended portion of the narrative takes place inside a courtroom where confrontations between capos are electric and pregnant with tension while Mafia kingpins eagerly wait behind bars to have at it with the man they call their enemy.

That enemy, the traitor of the movie, is Tommaso Buscetta (Pierfrancesco Favina in a strong, solid performance), who starts the movie proper in 1980 during a frosty gathering between two rival families, his own and Toto Riina’s (Nicola Cali), convening for a truce. The entire sequence is all polite gestures and posing for pictures while rival members stare daggers at each other. You expect violence to explode at any minute among the extravagant decor. Bellocchio, however, saves the violence for after Buscetta has moved to Brazil with his wife and six of his eight children (leaving Benedetto and Antonio behind, a fatal mistake he comes to regret later on). The systematic gunning down of Buscetta’s extended family in Sicily is brutal and unrelenting. It is that, plus Buscetta’s own arrest in Rio as well a torture sequence in which he witnesses his own wife being dangled from a plane, that prompts him to become a pentito, an informer for the Italian court seeking to bring Mafia bosses to justice. As a pentito, Buscetta gets the velvet gloves treatment precisely because he has so much information to share, and from a frosty first meeting with Judge Falcone (Fausto Augusto Alesi), a somewhat tentative agreement that may resemble friendship in its earliest stages forms.

The Traitor is, by far, one of Italy’s strongest entries following 2013’s The Great Beauty — compelling from start to finish, when we learn the fates of everyone. If anything, the one thing I could see in both men — one fictitious and one who died a little under 20 years ago — is the haunting sensation of regret. The biggest difference is that while Jep Gambardella’s one regret is that the could never find the essence of beauty, Buscetta laments not having been there for his sons, and their absence from his life haunts him throughout the entire film. It is an anguish that Favina’s eyes alone register once all is said and done, and everyone has met their fates behind bars.

Gong Li in Saturday Fiction. [image from TMD]

From a clear-cut story to one muddled with double crosses, triple crosses, and a narrative as clear as sludge, comes Saturday Fiction, directed by Lou Ye, and starring Gong Li as an actress who is also a spy, and who may be playing Mata Hari to more than one side of the war. Or maybe she’s not. I walked out not quite sure what I had seen, other than Li played an actress named Jean You who returns to Shanghai to appear in a play titled Saturday Fiction. She’s also there to be present for the release of her ex-husband from the Japanese. She’s also there because she has a relationship going on with the director of the play Tan Na (Mark Chao), but also seems to have some sort of daughter-father relationship with Frederic Hubert (Pascal Greggory) who is also a spy. Her hotel room is bugged, and she initiates a friendship that quickly becomes intense with a young admirer named Bai Mei (Wang Chuanjun). To note, the plot of Saturday Fiction takes place six days before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, so it’s no secret where the is leading to… but the movie itself takes so many twists and turns and no one seems to be trustworthy, it’s only when the guns come out that masks also come off and Gong Li becomes a relentless shooting machine. Who knew she was a gunslinger? It might take more than one view to completely grasp the entirety of Lou Ye’s murky vision, but as a recreation of the days leading up to December 7, 1941, and by virtue of Gong Li herself essaying an impenetrable woman marked by fate and duty and her own allegiances, Saturday Fiction is a watchable head-scratcher.

A still from Beanpole [image from The Music Hall]

A punch in the gut as it navigates the depths of an impossible situation, is Kantemir Balagov’s remarkable Beanpole, which will premiere in US theaters at the end of January, 2020. Before we see her, we hear her, apparently choking on her own breath. Her name is Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), a nurse working in a Leningrad hospital in the summer of 1945, and she is the caretaker of her friend Masha’s (Vasilisa Perelygina) little boy Pashka while Masha is away at war. Masha. Iya brings the little boy to liven things up in the hospital from the specter of death. Iya also suffers from moments of inexplicable, crippling stiffness and gets lost in a fugue, making choking noises in what would only be a reaction to the horrors of war. It’s a condition that will come to haunt her in the most inappropriate of times as she plays with Masha’s boy one evening with devastating consequences.

When Masha returns from the front, and learns her son is gone, her reaction is equal parts devastation and disassociation. It’s as if something inside her cannot accept the fact that her only son is gone, a fact that becomes even more terrible when we learn she has had her reproductive organs removed, Beanpole here takes a slight turn to the left and presents both women, completely codependent on each other, moving from love to hate and back again. Masha starts seeing another young man; Iya gets jealous, not wanting to share her only friend with anyone else. And then, Masha hatches up a cruel plan to get back at Iya for having allowed her Pashka to die.

If only Iya could see the reality around her (and there are often times when I wanted to scream at her but that is the type of person I am). Iya’s PTSD, compounded with her own broken self — she often states how empty she feels — have left her next to unable to function on her own and so she needs Masha to conduct the strings for her. But then, let’s take a look at Masha herself. Masha, who often seems to be the aggressor, has even less of a chance at happiness than Iya because she can’t be a mother. One scene has Masha dancing in an emerald green dress, and she starts rather okay, girlish, before devolving into a beast trapped in her own poverty because even something as simple as this would never be hers.

Balagov is less interested in constructing a path towards hope than to take a moment to observe a universe where no one ever had anything to begin with, and the war has left everyone desensitized, broken, and at the mercy of fate. It’s a striking piece of cinema, suffused in deep reds and greens with a perpetual gold light about it, and that is about as warm as he will allow it to be. After that, Beanpole is another slice of despair and nihilism and the inability to take matters into ones’ hand to find anything resembling happiness.

Atlantiques, which won the Grand Prix at Cannes, by Matt Diop, coming to Netflix in November, 2019. [image from Jezebel]

We don’t get many African movies in the area so I felt intrigued by Senegal’s entry Atlantics. What starts as a movie steeped in social realism quickly (and quite deftly) morphs into something else entirely. Ada (Mame Bineta Sane) is going out with Souleiman (Traore), a construction worker who, alongside his colleagues, has not been paid for three months. Facing a brick wall of resistance the men set out to sea to start life anew in Spain. Ada on the other hand is in an arranged marriage to a rather wealthy man, and on their wedding night someone sets fire to their bed, effectively ruining their honeymoon, Reports soon abound that Souleiman has returned, but Ada thinks it impossible since by now he would be in Spain. Adding to that, some of the local girls (and one detective working the arson case) are falling into delirious fevers and suddenly waking up, asking for their payments owed. Could it be that perhaps Souleiman and the rest who left have returned but in spirit? Diop doesn’t provide a tidy answer past what she presents, but her debut movie (which won the Grand Prix at Cannes, no easy feat) is a strong sequence of visuals verging into the magical that could fit in any coastal town, where men who have gone to sea may not be at rest. Atlantics arrives to Netflix November 29, 2019.

Over the years Federico Veiroj has been a presence in the Lincoln Center. I became aware of his movies when I saw, first hand, The Apostate, a quirky little comedy about a man wanting to part ways with Catholicism and I still remember it to this day. His follow up, The Moneychanger (Asi hablo el cambista) seems to have larger ambitions in recreating a period piece navigating the 50s, 60s, and 70s, and I felt a tenuous link to Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street at least thematically and in its use of rather dry humor. It tells the story of Humberto Brause (Daniel Hendler), an accountant who got sucked in (with little resistance) into the world of money laundering. Starting small, Brause soon takes a penchant for handling larger and larger clients until one of his dealings comes to bite him in the rear. Seeing Hendler go from one situation to the other with a bland, sort of deer-in-the-headlights look is funny enough, but Veiroj imbues his rather short movie with enough doses of wit to keep the story moving even when it starts to get a bit over its head. Dolores Fonzi has a blast with her take on the brittle wife who’s pretty clear of her place in the world and has no intention of relinquishing it.

Pedro Costa’s haunting Vitalina Varela, image from Chicago Film Festival

If Virginia Woolf had been born in Cape Verde then Vitalina Varela would have been something she would have created on a lark. A film that itself is a spin-off of other past films that Pedro Costa has made about his marginalized characters who live rich interior lives, Vitalina starts proper where Horse Money ends. Arriving late to her husband’s funeral, she is introduced emerging from the plane in nothing but her bare feet. It’s a striking introduction because it leads to defining who she is: a woman that has nothing, who simply exists. She arrives to the slum where she used to live, a place of no electricity it seems, all pools of shadows. Memories of the past emerge into the present seamlessly as she reminisces, bringing to us, the audience, heartfelt confessions of a life she once had but one that has long disappeared. Vitalina the actress holds the entire picture together with her fiercely and mostly silent performance.

What makes a parasite? For one, we do know that a parasite is an organism that can’t produce its own food (or lacks the means to do so) so it latches onto another larger organism in order to secure its own existence. We can also even state that a parasite may live in the upper echelons of society, but managed to get there through unsavory means and the exploitation of others. Bong Joon Ho’s movie Parasite is the exploration of symbiotic relationships between the haves and have nots (willingly or by circumstance) in ways I would have never anticipated. The trailer reveals not a thing of the events that start to unfold, which is perfect because I walked in knowing next to nothing about what I was about to witness. The story of an insidious takeover of a rich household by people from a lower income unfolds with an ease that is essentially frightening, but shows just how disassociated from reality many of the nouveau riche have become. Needless to say, from the moment this begins to happen we a) root for the family and b) laugh at the sheer audacity of what they are able to get away with and c) wonder, where will all this end?

I don’t want to reveal anything else and this is why I am both ending this rather long article of movies seen at the New York Film Festival at that, because precisely that is the pivot to where the entire story hangs. Suffice it is to say, Bong Joon Ho is in complete command of his razor sharp farce. Every action, every line, every gesture is uttered with complete attention to a precise vision of story telling. Watching the escalation of craziness that unfolds is like the moments before the roller coaster has reached the top: you know at one point the entire car has to careen down and take some twists and turns, but boy, does he let that car take its time to reach its highest point.

JOKER: A Special Presentation at the 57th New York Film Festival

Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker. [image from CNET]

JOKER: Country: US / Canada. Director: Todd Phillips. Screenwriters: Todd Phillips and Scott Silver. Language: English. Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Shea Whigham, Bill Camp, Marc Maron, Hannah Gross. A 57th New York Film Festival Special Presentation. Release Date: October 4, 2019. Runtime: 122 minutes.

Mostly Indies rating: A+

This review contains spoilers.

There’s been much publicity about Joker, now playing in theaters. Some of it is good (all involving Joaquin Phoenix’s performance where he slowly morphs from an ineffectual man disconnected from the world into a monster in clown attire). Some of it, however, delves into the truly ridiculous, and I refuse to give into what the movie is not about — namely, the excessive depiction and/or ideation of violence, of which this picture has not one scene. It would be a waste of time, and Joker is too good a movie, too keen a character study to reduce it to a mess of gore and mayhem. Frankly, and I’ll say it, whoever saw Joker and walked out so horrified because it was disturbingly violent that they had to go on and write that this picture may lead to repeat incidents like the one in a certain theater in Colorado probably needed views on his or her page or wanted to stir up some trouble. This, dear reader, is what sensationalism is based on and it’s as old as time. Exaggeration sells. Tabloids have perfected embellishment to an art form. If I’m a rising movie blogger and I need to go viral I’m definitely going to make sure my posts are so out there, so filled with vitriol, that you have no chance but to see it and gape. That is what has happened with Joker, and to be fair. while there are some violent moments in its narrative, nothing in it approximates anything you won’t see in the news, Discovery ID, or any slasher / horror movie for that matter. Even Joker’s inspiration, Taxi Driver, blows it out of the water, and today, is considered a de facto classic.

Without further ado, here is what Joker is about. It depicts an alternative origin story of Batman’s arch nemesis, and that story centers on the sad spiral into darkness of one Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a man who, safe to say, probably never had a chance to co-exist peacefully in the modern world. His introduction is that of a victim of theft in the middle of Gotham City, a man with a disorder that makes him laugh inappropriately, as he tries to scrape a living as a party clown who wishes to make people laugh as a stand-up comic. If that isn’t pathetic enough, he still gets blamed by his boss for allowing the theft to happen. A meeting with his therapist sheds some light into his state of mind, which is very negative. Adding to that is his mother Penny (Frances Conroy), who seems immersed in her own world of fantasy, frail and unable to fend for herself. A coworker later gives Arthur a gun for self-defense, an act that will backfire badly later on once Arthur gets fired from his job for bringing that very same gun to a children’s hospital. Arthur, in short, has no friends, no social life, nothing to lighten up the burden. The sole glimmer of hope comes in the form of a neighbor, the beautiful Sophie (Zazie Beetz), who he meets fleetingly in the elevator as they exchange awkward pleasantries and whom he invites to watch him perform a comedy routine.

[image from the LA Times]

Sophie’s presence alone may have been a saving grace for Arthur, but he seems to be a magnet for events that seek to diminish him as a person. Funding for his medical therapy has ceased, leaving him a ticking time bomb. His dream at the start of the movie is to be a guest on Late Night with Murray Franklin; that dream will take a disastrous, defining turn when Franklin (Robert De Niro) openly mocks Arthur’s attempt to tell a joke during a failed comedy act (which has gone viral). It’s only when three corporate drones who happen to be from Thomas Wayne’s (Brett Cullen) firm show up on the subway one night to taunt a woman, when all of that inner rage that has been testing inside becomes unleashed in one fell swoop. Arthur’s laughing disorder kicks into overdrive, which attracts the attention of the three goons who decide to take matters into their own hands. Just when it seems as though once again, life and fate have descended on Arthur like a ton of bricks, he surprisingly reacts, injuring two fo the men in self-defense. The third man runs away, terrified, into the dark subway station, with Arthur in calm pursuit. Arthur then corners the third guy, and coldly executes him, vanishing into the night.

We now start to see a darker version of Arthur Fleck emerge as he starts to feel more “confident”. While Wayne condemns the shootings and makes light of those at the bottom of the social pile, calling them clowns, protests emerge from the woodwork with people now donning clown faces to resemble the mysterious killer. Arthur is starting to enjoy this newfound status. However, this sense of having some power, some control, comes to a crashing halt once Arthur intercepts a letter written by Penny to Wayne claiming Arthur is his long-lost son, the fruit of an illicit affair she had. Arthur attempts to visit the Wayne mansion and has an all-too-brief encounter with Bruce Wayne before Alfred comes between them. This leads Arthur to a confrontation with Wayne himself who reveals some unexpected information which Arthur confirms when he visits Arkham State Hospital. The information, alongside Wayne’s own rejection, is so crushing one can’t but wait for the inevitable. What little Arthur had tethering him to humanity has now been effectively severed. Arthur is less than the clown he projects; he is no one, nothing, and almost like a bookend to Joaquin Phoenix’s last movie, he was never really there to begin with. He never mattered.

Of all the origin stories, this one is the story that I have to say gets me the most. It is profoundly nihilistic, dripping in agony, a movie that dares you to feel sorry for this character (and you find that at times, you do). Superheroes often have traumatic entries into their new personas, but Joker, as a standalone origin story, is well apart from the rest because it almost makes his rebirth into something that was fated. However, this time, the man inside isn’t a courageous hero but an emasculated incel. Joker presents an origin story about pain disguised as a smile or an attempt at a laugh, and nothing can be more schizophrenic and pay more homage to the two masks of comedy and tragedy than Arthur Fleck’s descent. Throughout the entire movie Joaquin Phoenix moves around as if even movement itself causes him misery; there isn’t a moment when the character seems to be at ease. His world is deeply diseased and has no door to escape. His laughing disorder comes through as a gasp of pain and desperation. This is a man constantly crying out for help, and no one seems to be paying attention. No one comes to his aid.

Take away the superhero / comic book facade and you have a tragedy of epic proportions, plain and simple. I can see this character with eyes of compassion because how many of these lone, crazy killers have come forth after having somehow slipped through the cracks? How many of these walking wounded continue to fail to find any solace and live in constant fear and self-hatred and delusions? It even makes me wonder, can madness then not only be genetic but environmental? We now know Arthur Fleck has no family to speak of but an unstable mother; can lack of nurture, abuse, and manical delusions indeed be responsible for shaping a psyche like the man who slowly transforms into the Joker?

The answer, quite simply, is yes… and no. There are horror stories of horribly abused people who come out to the surface; this is clearly not that story. Arthur has made his choice because quite literally he has never been given a chance to be anything else but a failure. When he stands up on top of the vehicle towards the end of the movie and paints his Glasgow smile, I found it to be probably the most horrific moment in the entire film and I admit that this is where I wept, not in sadness, but in horror. It is the proverbial awakening of a monster in full force, aware, omnipresent, and capable of incredible savagery. This is, by far, Joaquin Phoenix’s best performance so far and one that elevates a pulp character based on a silent movie (The Man Who Laughs from 1924) into something terrifying. It’s a fitting entry for a character like Joker, and one that may divide audiences alike or bring people together to discuss. I personally think that Joker takes the concept of a man driven mad and completely runs with it, even hinting that perhaps he might be related to the Batman himself — a conceit I would have gladly accepted since it raises the question of the good within evil and evil within the good, split into two different people pushing against each other perpetually.

Now, onto the more technical aspects of Joker. I’m pretty happy with the way Todd Phillips presented his story. Period. I can’t fault him for having used Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy as templates to find a platform for Arthur Fleck’s story, and to be honest, I have to disagree with critics who accuse Joker of following both stories a bit too on the nose. Joker is its own story of despair told in vivid colors and gritty detail, one that will ask a second viewing to get the nuances of the character study. The use of music is truly a stand-out: Stephen Sondheim;s Send in the Clowns, and Jimmy Durante’s Smile get incredible mileage, and the use of a stairway (most likely the kind found in the 200s in uptown Manhattan) depicts the fall and rise of the Joker like nothing I’ve ever seen before. In the first scene, we see a defeated Arthur dwindled into nothing agsainst the looming apartment buildings that frame the stairway. He seems almost unable to climb one more step… and yet, he does. The next time we see Arthur, he’s almost channeling Gene Kelly, dancing and shimmying down like he were in his own musical as he goes for his grand entrance at Murray Franklin’s show.

I guess I could go on and on but I will leave it up to you to go see this incredible movie, and don’t read too much of what the media wants to instill: a fear of controversial, high quality motion pictures in which sometimes, a bad guy is born because he was born to be bad.

BRIGHTBURN: Good concept, but a bit too eager to go nuts.

[Image from IO9]

BRIGHTBURN. Country: USA. Director: David Yarovesky. Screenwriters: Brian Gunn, Mark Gunn. Language: English. Cast: Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Jackson A. Dunn, Matt Jones, Runtime, 90 minutes. Release, May 24, 2019. Home Release: August 20, 2019.

Mostly Indies rating: B–

Earlier in May, a little movie called Brightburn suddenly showed up in several multiplexes (mainly AMC) and with next to no promotion, no commercials, nothing. It went to score rather respectably in the box office, making back its budget in its opening weekend and emerging quite the winner despite a lack of back up of seasoned critics. I will admit that I sometimes tend to avoid pictures like these because there is a risk that they will either be truly terrible and go straight to video merely a month later, and who wants to waste even 90 minutes plus promos to sit back and watch an atrocity play in front of you? Yeah, me neither. [It’s why there will be a conspicuous lack of Fs and barely some D ratings here at Mostly Indies because… well… I just won’t.]

So I did the logical and decided to wait for its release. Now that I’ve seen it in the middle of an insane film festival I can say that this one’s not that bad, not even close. Brightburn tells the story of Superman — or at least, it uses the blueprint of the Superman mythos — and flips it like an omelette. Let me explain. So at the start of the movie we get Tori and Kyle Breyer (Elisabeth Banks and David Denman), a married couple living in rural Kansas. Right from the start their lives are upended when a meteor crashes onto their property. Curious to see what it is, they go out, and soon we learn through home video that they’ve become the parents of a baby boy named Brandon (Jackson A, Dunn). Brandon is whom they found in the ruins outside their house.

Flash forward a few years, however, and Brandon, who’s at the threshold of puberty, starts to sleepwalk around the house and is attracted by something locked behind closed doors in the shed. Elements of violence start to emerge from nowhere in his personality and he begins to display unusual feats of strength. A crush on a schoolgirl yields incredibly creepy results, found drawings underneath Brandon’s bed paint a picture of emerging, disturbing attractions, and before you know it, Brandon seems to be morphing into a rather scary psychopathic young boy bent on getting what he wants and at any cost and he has the nascent superpowers to use them at will.

Much of the success at Brightburn depends on the fact that it is extremely economical and makes use of its budget rather well, to the point that you would think a lot more money had gone into it. [It only cost a little north of 6 million to make.] Its pacing is on the faster side, but not too much that you miss any character development. Banks and Denman create a believable couple facing something straight out of a nightmare and their reaction, from denial even at the face of evidence to eventual recognition works because most parents often believe their children, monsters or not, are the best. [And if you don’t believe me, take a look into another couple facing a son they soon start to realize they don’t recognize anymore in the outstanding movie Luce (now on home video). And in that one, the mother, played by Naomi Watts, actually hinders an investigation by hiding crucial evidence, a thing that comes to haunt her in the end.]

I just wish that Yarovesky would have allowed his movie to create a little more suspense in its scenes involving Brandon, once he starts stalking his neighbors. Some of the scenes happen in a manner that look a bit too flat and don’t leave for much tension. An early confrontation in a diner between Brandon and the mother of a girl he’s attracted to feels rushed (despite some gore). Yet another sequence, while unbelievably gory, also fails to have any build up but just “happens”. See, to me, horror movies in general should invoke a creepy buildup that places its characters in an increasingly arena of danger. The deeper they wade in, the more we realize they are in for a nasty surprise. Here, much of what happens does so in a prompt, efficient manner, and it made me feel a bit flat.

Other than that, Brightburn is a slick little horror film that can stand on its own without the Superman lore. If you took that away you’d have The Bad Seed with the gender flipped to male. Its just a bit too eager to get to the gore and that is what may take from its impact of a boy gone wrong.

IN THE TALL GRASS: A Netflix Release

IN THE TALL GRASS. Country, Canada. Director: Vincenzo Natali. Screenwriter: Vincenzo Natali, based on the novella by Stephen King and Joe Hill. Cast: Laysla De Oliveira, Avery Whitted, Patrick Wilson, Will Buie, Jr. Harrison Gilbertson, Rachel Wilson. Runtime: 101 minuets. Release Date: October 4, 2019. On Netflix.

Mostly Indies Rating: C

With so much material on his hands it’s more often than not that a writer of the stature of King will in some ways repeat himself thematically, if not do outright re-writes of previous works. His novella In the Tall Grass, co-written with his son Joe Hill, seems to suggest yet another incursion into cult horror in the middle of nowhere.

From its opening sequence the film’s premise follows the same as the one in Children of the Corn in both story and original movie with the sole exception that while that one consisted of a forgotten little place overrun by children who worship some god of the underworld, this time, there are no people around but a strange expanse of impossibly tall grass in which a strange rock, possibly the remnants of a meteorite, stands still but gleams in malevolent energy eager to meet the unsuspecting for a little fun in blood sacrifice.

The unsuspecting are a set of two families. The first, a brother and sister duo, Cal and Becky (Avery Whitted and Laysla De Oliveira), who stop while on the way to San Diego because Becky, who is pregnant and needs to relieve herself, has just heard the cries of a boy lost in the middle of the tall grass. Against her better judgement, and because she also overhears what seems to be the boys mother (Rachel Wilson) telling the boy to not to call anyone in, she and Cal set into the grass to locate the boy, and soon realize that time and distance seems to be playing tricks on them. What seemed to be a few feet now seems to have stretched farther out, and soon, both she and Cal are hopelessly lost in this never ending sea of green. However, the movie doesn’t limit itself to people lost within grass: soon Becky encounters Ross (Patrick Wilson), who’s also searching for his family, while Cal meets the boy, Tobin (Will Bule, Jr., a young actor with a striking resemblance to Elijah Wood at the start of his career some 20 years ago). Tobin at first seems a bit shifty. Remember, this is the Stephen King universe. Kids in his stories can be either preternaturally self-reliant and thus, trustworthy, or basically the Devil himself and must be avoided at all costs. Tobin provides some insight into what might be happening behind the plates of grass, which then cranks the story up a notch into weirdness. It all comes to a head when Becky’s boyfriend Travis (Harrison Gilbertson) also finds his way into the endless meadows as he searches for her. Eventually, all the characters converge into one somewhat open area, and Ross reveals he’s not the nice man he once may have been before he entered the grassy field. Time bends, becomes elastic, and then all hell breaks loose once the power behind the stone jutting from the ground takes its hold on the hapless cast.

For the most, In the Tall Grass is pretty effective in establishing a streamlined version of common King tropes. You will have tragic, subservient wives meeting gruesome ends. You’ll have the plucky heroine who tries her best to manage her way into the nightmare she’s literally walked into. You have your couple of untrustworthy characters who seem to be prey to a larger power — in Cal, you have the brother who loves his sister a bit too much, and in Ross, the archetypical father-villain who in Patrick Wilson finds the perfect actor as a handsome man with the winning smile and a glint of crazy just behind the eyes. Some of the inclusion of multiple timelines seem to exist only in an arbitrary fashion, but if you don’t care about too much logic you should be able to enjoy the premise well. Where the story’s thin premise buckles at the seams is when it presents the creatures haunting the field, and the curious drawings on the rock. It’s a common trop In King’s work, to show the monster in the closet; on cinema, however, less is always more, and omitting this detail from the story would have made it a bit more chilling. As it stands, this is an above average piece of work, with handsome cinematography and solid acting, but not a tremendously compelling work of horror.

A Small Town Prepares for War in the Neo-Western BACURAU

[Image from Cinevue]

BACURAU. Country: Brazil / France. Director: Kleber Mendonça Filho, Juliano Dornelles. Screenwriter: Kleber Mendonça Filho, Juliano Dornelles. Language: Portuguese, English. Cast: Barbara Colen, Thomas Aquino, Silvero Pereira, Karine Teles, Antonio Saboia, Sonia Braga, Udo Kier. Runtime: 130 minutes. A 57th New York Film Festival Main Slate Selection. US Premiere: October 1, 2019. US Release Date: January 1, 2020.

Mostly Indies rating: B+

Bacurau will come to many as a welcome left turn for director Kleber Mendonça Filho who last hit the American theaters with his cry of outrage called Aquarius in which Sonia Braga bravely fought unscrupulous real estate developers from taking away her house. Thematically, the story of Bacurau is basically the same, but this time, the setting that both directors (Juliano Dornelles co-directs where before he served as production designer) place the setting in a forgotten little place in the middle of nowhere, where the land stretches forever, and people live in harmony together, celebrating life and loss with sensual bravado. It’s a place that more often than not won’t be found on the Google map, but one that developers — again, those pesky bad guys — are eyeballing for future development.

The place is Bacurau, and Teresa (Barbara Colen) arrives just in time to learn that the village’s oldest denizen, Carmelita (Lia de Itamarca) has passed away at 94. The town, far from mourning, is celebrating — all except Domingas (Sonia Braga), the town’s doctor who also serves as the town’s Earth mother. But that’s not the plot point… if anything, this only serves to introduce its quirky characters and their sense of extended family. What introduces the plot proper is the arrival of a shlubby mayor running for office who treats the villagers of Bacurau with incredible condescendence, and conveniently fails to supply the place with the necessary elements to allow the villagers a dignified life.

Once he leaves, the pressure starts to mount: two motorcyclists (Karine Teles and Antonio Saboia) arrive to town, seemingly just touring the land. However, they will bring a sinister plot just behind when it is revealed that they are part of a group of American renegades led by Udo Kier (who hams it up big time as if he were in a B-movie) looking to hunt people for bloodsport. Their arrival signifies a turn for the violent when some of them go rogue and in one chilling moment commit an act of murder so heinous, so horrifying, that I’m glad that the directors stuck to their guns and kept it, if in fact to punctuate that these aren’t your average killers and that Bacurau is set for an epic battle against pure, psychopathic evil.

If you can get past the clunky dialogue that was given to the actors playing the Americans — and it is truly, unequivocally awful; I’ve never seen such talk even in bargain basement grade F movies — Bacurau can be wicked fun. You will love how the village joins forces to combat these human invaders (the movie throws in some flying saucers as distraction, which add some comic relief). Let me just say, it gets messy in Bacurau. Very messy. There’s an approximation to the type of movies Tarantino or the Coen brothers tend to make, complete with a killer scene in which a two villagers creatively dispatch two Americans while in the nude. [That scene received a huge explosion of applause at the October 1 screening at the Alice Tully.] Sandwiched within the madness is a terrific showdown that takes place between Sonia Braga’s character and Udo Kier’s. You keep waiting to see what in the world will happen, since he’s come to lay his claim and anyone who saw Aquarius knows she’s not afraid of confrontation. It all reaches a critical pitch, and serves its story of the old, the traditional, the historic, preserving itself against the new, with a kind of zeal only seen in the craziest of Westerns.

Past and Present, Vodou and White Privilege, Clash in Bertrand Bonello’s ZOMBI CHILD

[Image from Cinevue]

ZOMBI CHILD. Country, France. Director, Bertrand Bonello. Screenwriter, Bertrand Bonello. Language, French, Creole. Cast: Louise Labecque, Wislanda Louimat, Katiana Milfort, Mackenson Bijou, Sayyid El-Alami. Runtime, 102 minutes. Part of the 57th New York Film Festival Main Slate. Venue: Alice Tully Hall. US Premiere, October 1, 2019. US Release date: TBA.

Mostly Indies: C+

After experiencing back-to-back disappointments with his 2014 film Saint Laurent and his 2016 Nocturama, I was a bit hesitant to approach Bertrand Bonello’s incursion into the horror genre with his current work Zombi Child, an incursion into art-horror that attempts to merge Haiti’s tradition of turning civilians into zombies to reinforce slavery, blended somehow with a sheltered all-girl’s school, because I wasn’t sure how well he would treat the subject matter of what is part of Haitian religion and its own culture without turning it into something a bit silly or fetishistic.

The result of Bonello’s movie is equal parts historic recreation mixed with elements that seem borrowed from Val Lewton’s own I Walked with a Zombie (1944) or Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow (1987), and in that is good in my book. From the start, Zombi Child kicks off rather eerily, with the depiction of an unknown bokor preparing the drug that will be used for nefarious purposes against an unfortunate. That unfortunate turns out to be Clairvius Narcisse (Mackenson Bijou), who collapses in the middle of a street in an unknown Haitian town and gets buried soon after. Only that he is not dead, Bonello films a chilling shot from Narcisse’s point of view as he silently and passively listens to the dirt falling onto his grave, only to find himself enslaved in the fields working for a black master.

The film then cuts to the present and zooms into an all-girl boarding school, where (predictably) the girls are mostly ignorant of the outside world. Amongst them is a young Haitian girl, Melissa (Wislanda Louimat), who while accepted in a clique of girls who love to listen to trap music and discuss literature, is also seen as a bit of a freak, mostly because she has been heard making strange noises in the girl’s bathroom at odd hours. Another girl, Fanny (Louise Labecque), seems to be going through an existential crisis of love as she mourns the loss of a former boyfriend, Pablo (Sayyid El-Alami). Conversations between Fanny and the other girls of their clique lead Fanny to discover Melissa’s Haitian heritage and seek her aunt Katy (Katiana Milfort) out for something unspeakable.

For the most part, Zombi Child seems to be split down the middle with its two disparate storylines which merge into a final, satisfying third. Its Haitian scenario is truly an atmospheric nightmare in which Clairvius, drugged beyond his wits, works the fields and wanders aimlessly through streets, slowly piecing back his life together. The French story sags quite a bit, and serves as a (very) slow ascent up the rollercoaster, giving us bits and pieces of information about the two most salient girls, before revealing to us not just what one is about to engage in, but that the other may have been a product of some unholy union and carries that in her own veins. It’s an intriguing piece of cinema, not quite horror but close, in which the cultural and political heritage of one country informs and colors another, and its incursion into a fantastic and horrifying climax serves as both expungement of a trauma by one girl, and the reaffirmation of another girl’s own culture.

Lost in Paris, Tied to the Past: Nadav Lapid’s SYNONYMS

SYNONYMS (Synonymes). Country: France, Israel, Germany. Director: Nadav Lapid. Screenwriter: Nadav Lapid. Cast: Tom Mercier, Quentin Dolmaire, Louise Chevillotte, Yehuda Almagor. Language: French, Hebrew, English. Runtime: 122 minutes. A New York Film Festival Main Slate. Release Date: October 25, 2019 at the Quad Cinema in NYC.

Mostly Indies rating: A

It seems that every year there is that one movie that manages to somehow polarize people and emit hisses and boos from the audience. I’ve now seen not one but two of them, the first being Albert Serra’s Liberte (last night at the Walter Reade) and Nadav Lapid’s film Synonyms at the Alice Tully. Mind you, I didn’t think that this film would prompt such a reaction from the audience once credits rolled — I’ve seen other films that have garnered even more intense reactions, like 2016’s Elle and Raw, or earlier this year when I saw Midsommar, which despite gleaning glowing reviews from critics and Yours Truly, did not exactly find itself loved by the crowd I sat with on preview night that giggled and cackled in scenes that well… you know.

Synonyms is a difficult film to digest, It will polarize moviegoers who will either understand its meaning or feel completely repelled by the anti-hero’s sheer stubbornness and negation of self which near the end reaches a level of almost hysterical blindness. I almost don’t even want to give it a “rating” per se because I fear that in doing so I am somehow being unfair to the story itself, which is just as important and poignant as the tragic story of Edmund in Roberto Rosselini’s Germany Year Zero (Germania Anno Zero). How can I judge a director who is attempting to retell is own life experience into a two hour movie? It would be rather lofty of me to say that perhaps this was a misfire, that I liked The Kindergarten Teacher better, that perhaps some closure at the end would have made more sense, and on, and on, amen.

When we begin the film, we see Yoav (Tom Mercier) from behind, through the lens of a camera that follows him urgently as he makes his way across a busy Parisian street and into the empty apartment where he is squatting. Soon later, he is naked, emerging from the sleeping bag he uses, and going into the shower to take a bath. The second he is done and ventures back out he realizes someone somehow snuck into his apartment and stole all of his items, leaving him basically destitute. Yoav frantically runs out of his place, going from door to door, pleading, screaming for help. No one comes out, He almost–almost!–ventures out into the street but instinct kicks in, and he goes back to his place, into the tub, into the cold water, and seemingly, decides to let fate take care of him.

[Image from Haaretz]

It is here when two neighbors, Emile (Quentin Dolmaire) and Caroline (Louuise Chevillotte) emerge from their places to provide succor. [Why they didn’t open the door earlier remains a mystery, but then, the final shot somehow will repeat the same indifference to the cries of help from neighbors if this might be an inconvenience.] The first thing that Emile notices is that Yoav is circumcized (which is one of the several comedic observations that happen throughout the film). They debate taking Yoav to the hospital but he regains consciousness, and Emile in an act of kindness (laced with a transparent homoeroticism) donates him some of his clothes and also gives him some Euros to survive on.

In a way, Yoav becomes “born again”. He recounts to Emile, with whom he bonds with, his life in Israel, a country Yoav describes using some choice words, not one of them good. Emile, skeptical, refuses to believe a country could be that bad, but Emile is your stereotypical entitled young man with a trust fund living in the city, pursuing his dreams. Yoav, on the other hand, is a damaged soul, one that was once molded by the Israeli military and who left in search ion a better life.

The irony of his appearance in Paris can’t be denied: in a time when there has been a rise in anti-Semitism in France, Yoav has arrived there ostensibly to erase any trace of his former life in Israel, obsessively learning French from a Larousse he carries with him at all times, Strangely, he works for Israeli Embassy, where he makes the acquaintance of some Israeli guys who seem to behave as if they belonged to some fight club. These acquaintances, who only appear during the middle portion of the movie, serve only to paint a clear picture of anti-Semitism; in one scene, while Yoav observes, one of his friends heckles passengers while humming the Israeli national anthem and proclaiming “I’m Jewish.” It’s an uncomfortable sight, for both the passengers and the Israelis who Yoav is acquainted to, because it is a sad reality that the immigrant is always seen as “the other”, “the invader”, and someone to basically, ignore at all costs, perpetuating the cycle of us versus them.

It’s in the final act when Synonyms starts to reveal the impasse between cultures, and cultural alienation. Yoav has begun, it seems, to date Caroline (complete with Emile’s blessing, which again, seems to be happening with some unspoken, ulterior motives). Caroline states at one point, “When I saw you naked in the bathtub I knew we’d end up together,” which makes me believe she does not see Yoav as a person she’d like to be with but a fetishized version of a man. Her motives to approach and resolve why Yoav found himself in the predicament at the start of the film seems to cement the fact that she does not and will not get to know him. Yoav, sadly, is already too damaged and too “macho” a character to fully explore his own self. He almost gives into Emile early on, but think that too would have ended badly.

Adding to the mix is that Yoav has found work on the side as a model, which in this case is synonymous with some shady work for a pervert with an iPad who subjects Yoav to undress, lie down, touch himself, and then reach orgasm but speaking in Hebrew. The scene is painful to watch because not only is Yoav being degraded, he’s also being forced to look into his own heritage and debase himself with it, which in a way, could be seen as the ultimate act of self-loathing and the denial of self. His cries in Hebrew of “What am I doing here?” which the videographer takes as ecstatic are particularly hard to watch, and then, to close it all, Yoav meets the videographer’s girlfriend, who happens to be from Palestine, and who flatly tells him she will not speak to him, point blank, because as we know… Israel and Palestine do not mix.

Synonyms does bring the past full circle with the appearance of Yoav’s father (Yehuda Almagar), who only wants to make sure that his son is well. However, by now, it has become clear that while Hoav is taking classes to become “assimilated” into French society, his own identity has become blurred. Nadav Lapid brings this disassociation to a painful head when Yoav basically loses it when attending Caroline’s concert, and now finds himself painfully locked out of his own apartment, That Lapid ends his movie in this way speaks volumes to the message he wants to convey. More often than not, those who emigrate to other nations and don’t conform to that nation’s expectation usually find themselves shut out, pariahs, trying desperately to fit in while being rejected just the same.

Tom Mercier gives an electric performance as Yoav, a man who is obsessively tries to blend in with a society that does not accept him (or at one point, sees him as a curiosity, when he ventures into a club to play Techotronic’s 1988 hit Pump Up the Jam). His mannerisms and body language suggest someone lost but who is all reflexes, closed off, suffering in silence, The rest of the cast seem to be a bit stale, perhaps a bit predictable version of entitled individuals who for reasons tilting towards curiosity and fetichism help an immigrant out, but don’t or can’t provide any real support. As I said earlier, this is a very difficult film that presents a harsh reality for anyone not fitting the norm and should be watched right up to its exclamation point ending.

Making Love? out of Nothing AT All: Albert Serra’s LIBERTÉ at the New York Film Festival

Still from Albert Serra;s Liberte [Image from BFI]

LIBERTE, Country: France, Portugal, Spain. Director: Albert Serra. Screenwriter: Albert Serra. Cast: Helmut Berger, Marc Susini, Iliana Zabeth, Theodore Marcade, Baptiste Pinteaux. Languages: French, German, Italian. Runtime: 130 minutes. A New York Film Festival Main Slate and US Premiere. Release Date: TBA.

Mostly Indies Rating: A

Caveat emptor: this film may provoke walkouts. Venture forth with an open mind.

Not since discovering Pasolini ages ago while in college have I come across a film so unabashedly transgressive and willing to push the limits of eroticism to a point when it blurs the line between the imagined and the real, and then the real and the pornographic, and finally, the pornographic that seeks to titillate and the one that verges on the grotesque as Albert Serra’s Liberté. However, for someone like yours truly who at one time was actively involved in the leather scene (minus wigs and makeup), I could say upon viewing his movie, with an arched eyebrow and an expression of worldly cynicism, “Alrighty! That just happened. So much ado for naught. In my world this would be just another regular Saturday night at the dungeon. Not as messy as going outside into the woods and getting dirty, and that is exactly how I prefer it.”

However, in 1774, the time when the events of Liberté takes place, dungeons didn’t exist for consensual purposes and if you were sent to one, it was usually against your will and you pretty much died there, forgotten among the rats and other undesirables of France right before the Revolution of 1789. Just ask Sade, who mastered the art of writing his own brand of transgressive fiction, and who saw the life of day and freedom, oh, never, for most of his life, and until his death in 1814. Forgotten until the 1940s when his work was discovered tucked away, which is probably how he liked it anyway.

So, let’s go to the aforementioned events. You could summarize them in one sentence: One evening, libertines expelled from the court of King Louis the XVI gather in the depths of the forest with a German noble (played by Helmut Berger, the only marquee name of the cast of mostly unknowns) and engage in consensual debauchery.

And that’s it. The entire two and a quarter hours of Liberté is a series of vignettes taking place deep in the countryside (which could offer a sense equal parts privacy and transgression as they could be discovered at any time by a passerby). Some are light, merely verbal exchanges pregnant with a heavy Sadean influence.

In one particular scene somewhat in the middle of the movie two women engage in a discussion, mostly off-screen and in voiceover, about what to do with a weak man. One of them states how she would go by humiliating him over and over because she detests weakness in a man. When the other asks how would she present her affront to God, she replies that she wouldn’t care, and would love to receive “his perversion.” It is a highly erotic exchange, because while you don’t see anything happen and most of the scene is in the dark, your mind is on overdrive, imagining not just the act of humiliation, but that of possible retribution and the woman on the receiving end in ecstatic bliss as she receives her comeuppance. I’m pretty sure Sade would have chuckled at the very idea of not just perverting the divine, but also receiving bliss from it.

Other exchanges, however, are increasingly graphic in content. Here is where you either stay to the end (Albert Serra did ask the audience to stay until the final shot, because there have been walkouts in Cannes and other venues where Liberte has been screened), or decide you just can’t and throw in the towel, never to see Serra’s chosen ending. I wouldn’t go and classify any of these scenes as particularly erotic, but three are a standout; the humiliation of a blonde virgin tied to a tree and doused in buckets of milk. [At least I hope it was milk.] The scene involves only the images of the actress, restrained, her body glistening. The second involves one of the French Duc’s (Marc Susani) getting flogged until he shrieks in pain and ecstasy, and then the same Duc as he gets berated by the Madame de Dumeval (Theodore Marcade).

Now, for the crucial part: is this film recommendable? I would say yes if you dare, once it gets released in cinemas. [It has been acquired for distribution; its release date unknown at the time of this writing.] Nothing happens that is not so awful you can’t see it — and frankly, I have seen war movies and thrillers with more bloody content than anything that transpires here. Much of Serra’s film is strictly auditory as it is, so while two characters (or more) may be involved in a scene of consensual sex, we may hear loud shrieks and moans from a distance and wonder what the hell could be happening. The setting, strictly nocturnal, is perfect for Liberté, and only until the rather weird final scene in which daylight happens (yes, that is all), does light filter onto the trees while the sky remains dark. Liberte is an unclassifiable, but strangely beautiful, abstract exercise in nihilism and freedom posing as a period film indeed.

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.