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I saw five narrative features this year. Here they are in the order I saw them.

The Irishman

Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa and Robert DeNiro as Frank Sheehan foto: scroll.in

The opening night selection was “The Irishman”, the latest from Martin Scorsese. An epic crime film, organized around the still unexplained disappearance of Teamsters union president Jimmy Hoffa, in 1975, it plays out as perfectly suited to the title of the book it is based on, I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt. The “painter” is Frank Sheeran, a mob enforcer, whose “paint” is the brains and blood of the victims he’s killed. The opening shows him applying his “paint” to a wall.

Sheeran, played by Robert DeNiro, is a trucker who starts small, just petty bribes for the choice steaks he delivers. But a chance meeting with Russ Buffalino, a made Mafia boss, played by Joe Pesci, starts him up the crime ladder. Sheeran had developed a talent for killing in World War II, executing Nazi POWs, and is soon Buffalino’s “go to guy” for major hit jobs. They become a team, and Buffalino delights in how much prestige he is given because of his “Irishman”. Sheeran, in turn, treats his boss the same as a commanding officer: respect him, and never disobey.

But the relationship is complicated by Sheeran’s introduction to Jimmy Hoffa, whose career relies heavily on the mob. Al Pacino plays Hoffa, and it is a riveting, but extravagant performance; Pacino in his glory. It’s interesting to contrast him with Jack Nicholson, who played Hoffa in a 1992 bio-pic. Amazingly, Nicholson so immersed himself in the character that there are times you don’t recognize him. But Pacino will have none of that. He puts on a hell of a show, but you never for a moment forget that it’s him.

At any rate, the two men hit it off. A family man, Hoffa is drawn to Sheeran, who has four daughters. The families socialize frequently, which irritates Buffalino, whose marriage is childless. Over time, Hoffa relies more and more on Sheeran as a confidante. Sheeran becomes uncomfortable over dividing his loyalty between both men, especially after Hoffa becomes famous as the favorite target of Attorney General Bobby Kennedy.

Scorsese seems to have wanted to fashion a genuine American epic out of Sheeran’s story, and you can see why. The pageant includes  JFK’s election, Bobby Kennedy’s pursuit of the mob, the Bay of Pigs, and, somewhat skittishly, the assassination in Dallas. Sheeran is always privy to the mob’s involvement with those events; he gets the story first-hand. But he is never a participant (although he does deliver weapons to the Bay of Pigs fighters in Florida). He is often shown watching news items about the events, with his family, on television. His wife and daughters are usually silent, cold. They know that Sheeran has some kind of link to this violence, but they’re not sure how. Peggy, his eldest daughter, played by Lucy Gallina  as a child and Anna Paquin as an adult, seems the most disturbed, even though she expresses this only with her eyes, never in words.

But Sheeran takes center stage in two blockbusters: the assassination of Joey Gallo at Umberto’s Clam House in Greenwich Village, and Hoffa’s disappearance. Ironically, he gets his prison term, along with Buffalino and some others, for other, minor charges. But they all do serious federal time for them.

Scorsese keeps this pot of stew simmering, agreeably, for over two and a half hours. He has masterfully prepared it the same as his earlier feasts, including Goodfellas and the undervalued Casino. Little matter that the ingredients are not as fresh.

Still, good Scorsese should be more than enough for anyone. The three leads are in top form, especially Pesce, who gives layers to this unusually sorrowful mob boss. Steve Zaillian’s script is tough and nimble, and makes the history seem fresh again. Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing and Rodrigo Prieto’s photography are at the highest Scorsese level. As usual, Scorsese startles us with a soundtrack full of real but underplayed hits from the period.

And two wildly hilarious scenes stand out. Hoffa and Tony Provenzano (“Tony Pro”), played by Stephen Graham (Al Capone in Boardwalk Empire), have a mutual hostility that they strain to conceal. But at two meetings, the first in prison, the second in a diner, the hatred breaks out explosively. At first they sit and stare daggers at each other, doing a seething verbal war dance that finally culminates, on both occasions, into riotous roll-on-the-floor brawls. The dialogue is pure David Mamet, almost an homage from Zaillian. What is most interesting is that Mamet had actually written the 1992 Jack Nicholson film; yet these two scenes fit more neatly into his style than the script he actually did write.

But then, in the last half hour, Scorsese does something unexpected, taking the film in a direction that is far from what we’ve been led to expect.

The final section of the film, after Buffalino’s funeral, concentrates on how Sheeran looks back on his life while waiting to die in a Catholic nursing home. The film had opened with Sheeran narrating the story, as an old man, a somewhat rueful nod to Goodfellas. But after the story proper is done, when Sheeran must confront the meaning of his ugly, criminal past, Scorsese places us deep within Sheeran’s consciousness for the first time. And then – much to my shock – I felt pity for him. Sheeran is able to express his deep pain, but without regret or apology, through Zaillian’s brilliant words and DeNiro’s magnificently timeworn and damaged face.

Contrast this with Brando’s Don Corleone: death comes suddenly, in sunshine, while he plays with his grandson. But DeNiro is an abandoned outcast, living in a small, drab room in a wheelchair. He has plenty of time to reflect on a lifetime of evil deeds. I can’t think of another American crime film that ends this way. Leave it to Scorsese to show us the tragic and universal in his Goodfellas saga.

 

Synonyms

synonyms

Tom Mercier in “Synonyms” foto:moskonews.com

If this was the first film I’d seen a film by writer-director Nadav Lapid, I’d have been very impressed with his skill as a director. He uses the language of cinema with such confidence and verve that viewing the film was almost a visceral experience. He can be a major talent, I would have said, once he learns to focus on his story, and let his characters develop it in an unforced, natural way. But this will eventually come with experience.

The trouble is, this is the second film of his that I’ve seen. His previous film, The Kindergarten Teacher, is one of the best films of this decade, and it succeeds because it has all of the elements that are missing from this one, his third feature. So it’s no comfort that he’ll develop those skills later on; I know he already has them. So what happened?

I’m not sure, but his skill as a director held me through the rather frustrating story, even though the film is two hours long. It opens with Yoav, a lean, muscular Israeli in his late twenties, coming to live in Paris after discharge from the Israeli army. His experiences there left him so bitter, that he exiled himself to France, even vowing never to speak Hebrew again. He disappeared without even telling his parents.

It’s never quite clear what kind of life he expected to have, in a foreign country where he doesn’t even know the language. Yoav believed the story of his life can get him some money, and he makes friends with a writer named Emile, and his partner, Caroline, who are charmed by him, and tell him they’ll help him get his story published.

It’s clear that both Emile and Caroline are attracted to him sexually, although Yoav expresses no interest at first. He soon makes other contacts in Paris. He gets a security job, and also connects to a group of expatriate Israelis who want to stage violent public protests over the treatment of Israel. There is talk of staging fights with right-wing groups. At any rate, Yoav does not pursue contact with them. His father comes to Paris to try to get him to return to Israel, but he refuses. He also picks up extra cash as an artist’s model.

The film shows his increasing anxiety at his situation. Caroline, played by Louise Chevillotte, starts an affair with him, and he sees this as an opportunity to become a legal French citizen by marrying her. He attends classes for French citizenship, including language instruction. The instructor, played arrestingly by Lea Drucker, is a truly disturbing portrait of disguised fanaticism. In the most powerful scene in the film, Yoav sees the extent of the commitment demanded of him by the French government; an almost surreal immersion into French identity that seems humanly impossible. He breaks off with Caroline, and reaches out to Emile, who now rejects him as well. The final scene has him trying to break down the door to Emile’s apartment. He accuses him of driving him back to Israel, where he has no future.

The main problem, I think, is that the character of Yoav, his motivations, are never clear. He is confused about his own identity, but his attempts to “discover” his true self seem irrational. We suspect that something in his past, his life growing up with his family, may help explain why he is making such an extreme break, but the film refuses to confront the question. When he repeatedly, ineffectually crashes into Emile’s door at the end, his frustration seemed to mirror my own. It is clear that there are autobiographical elements in the film, and Lapid has apparently never resolved his own conflicted feelings.

Tom Mercier is an attractive actor, but the character of Yoav is dramatically inert; a hopeless situation. Also the character of Emile, played by Quentin Dolmaire, is never credible; he seems almost a parody of a French cineaste wimp. But Lea Drucker is transfixing as the French teacher. Outwardly patient and attentive to these hopeful immigrants, there’s a gleam of contempt in her eyes that is almost scary. We can see why Yoav freaks out after her class.

 

Sybil

Ordinarily, I am put off when a filmmaker wavers the tone of the film to the extent that we see here. The opening scene has a funny rant by a male friend who is responding to Sybil’s plan to quit her psychotherapy practice in order to work on her novel. But he thinks she’s crazy. She’d be wasting her talents a s a serious writer because today the only thing that sells is “chick lit”. The next scene shows her in a session with a large, visibly furious man who feels abandoned by her. He stands up, shaking, and almost seems about to become violent. It was genuinely scary. The juxtaposition of the two scenes is revealing. It’s as if writer-director Justine Triet (co-writer Arthur Harari) is telling us that the story will be told in a series of startling, unsettling moments, without any dominating tone, until the end.

Nevertheless, she succeeds in keeping me involved. The shifts are still disruptive, but star Virginie Efira is such a charmer, and so skilled at maneuvering around them, that I was glad I stuck around for the ride.

Sybil

Virginie Efira as “Sybil” foto:variety.com

The precipitating event of the story is the distress of one of her patients, Margot, a young actress playedby Adele Exarchopoulos, when she is told that Sybil won’t see her any more. She becomes frantic that she will lose Sybil at such a critical time. She was just cast in a film that will star the actor she is having an affair with. But the actor, Igor, played by Gaspard Ulliel (the wonderful lead in St. Laurent), is sleeping with the director of the film, Mika (Sandra Huller from Toni Erdmann), and Margot knows she’ll be fired if Mika ever found out. What’s worse is that she’s pregnant, wants to have an abortion, but knows that Igor will never let her do it; he would insist that she have the child.

The rest of the film deals with Sybil’s gradual involvement with these three people, and how each of them tries to manipulate her for their own purposes. Along the way, we see how Sybil allows herself to be used by them because of her own emotional problems. Not surprisingly, issues are raised about her professional judgment, and, believe me, she does not come off well.

Further complicating this are her current and past relationships. She is raising two small children with the father of the youngest. But while she has feelings for him, she is still disturbed by memories of the older child’s father, who now has a family of his own. On top of this, Sybil is a recovering alcoholic, and it’s a strain for her to stay sober.

With the exception of the extended sequence on the set of Margot’s film – which is broadly comic – the various strands of Sybil’s story are presented in a jarring jumble of scenes, without any dramatic continuity. One undeveloped story line is her family relationships, including that with her older sister, nicely played by Laura Calamy. In a delightful scene, she takes Sybil’s child aside and tells him to tell Sybil that he “doesn’t have the tools he needs to succeed”. She also tells him that his mother will absolutely freak out, which is exactly what happens. But then the story jumps back to Margot’s crisis. In the end, relationships seem to start and end abruptly, although Triet has set them up teasingly.

Still, I wound up on Sybil’s side because of the character’s vulnerability and unapologetic impulsiveness. Efira manages shifts in tone with unusual grace and charm. It also doesn’t hurt that Efira is a beautiful woman who is totally at ease doing nude scenes where she has hot, hungry sex with a variety of men. To her credit, though, Efira gives us many other things to remember about her performance, including a drunken smashup at the premiere party of the film.

But that’s not enough to make up for an overstuffed story that can’t decide if it wants to just amuse the audience or make a feminist statement about the obstacles facing talented women today. Where Triet succeeded, however, is in making a showcase for a fresh and exciting female star.

 

Atlantique

Apparently Netflix is gambling on another Roma with its sponsorship of this film, which is Senegal’s entry, in the French language, for Best Foreign Film Oscar. This year, a record 93 countries have submitted entries. Still, after seeing this one at the festival, I think Netflix has a good shot.

This is writer-director Mati Diop’s first feature, but, in what may be a precedent, it won the Grand Prize at Cannes. It is a highly original, daring and delicately beautiful film that manages to combine the themes of an oppressive religious culture, capitalist corruption, male dominance and the triumph of romantic love into one neat – a little too neat, I think – poetic parable. And it’s also a pretty good zombie flick.

Lovers played by Ibtahima Traore and Mame Binda Sane foto: telegram.fr

It opens at a seaside construction site in a modern coastal city in Senegal. We plunge into a heated argument between management and laborers who haven’t been paid for almost four months. But the boss is “away”, the laborers are told, and nobody knows where the money is. On the long truck ride home, they are defiant, although one, Souleiman, seems unusually dejected. He is going to see the girl he loves, Ada, and doesn’t want to face her without money. But Ada has her own problems. She clearly loves Souleiman, but her family has arranged for her to marry Omar, who is rich, in ten days. In a long tender scene, Souleiman shows only joy at seeing Ada, but she is held back by her confusion about what to do.

But then, fate intervenes with a crisis. Ada and her girlfriends are told that Souleiman and the other laborers had gone to sea during the night. They took an unsafe boat to try to get to Spain to find work. Ada is apprehensive; she has a premonition that Souleiman will die at sea.

Ada becomes so depressed that she cannot eat or sleep. But the family still goes ahead with the marriage plans. Even Ada’s girlfriends don’t understand why she is not overjoyed to marry the rich Omar. She is absolutely rigid at the ceremony, and unmoved by the magnificence of the marriage bed where she will sleep with her husband.

But then, suddenly, somebody smells smoke. There is a fire in the house, without explanation. The fire is confined to the unused marriage bed, which is ruined. Issa, a police inspector, played by Amadou Mbao (the film’s standout performance), is called in to investigate. He is an honest professional, unlike the department heads, who are on the take from rich businessmen. But he has had mysterious symptoms recently that cause him to faint. These symptoms come and go, without explanation, and the doctors cannot explain them. Issa carries on. He has heard reports that Souleiman was seen on the night of the wedding, and he suspects that Ada conspired with him to set the fire. She denies this, but is excited to learn that someone has seen Souleiman. But why doesn’t he contact her?

Through this part of the film, most of the first half, we see it from a realistic perspective, although in a rich, poetic style. The photography, by Claire Mathon, is simply glorious throughout. But the film’s style changes suddenly, eerily. Ada’s girlfriends are seen walking slowly, as a group, to the rich home of the construction company’s owner. They threaten to start a fire in one of his buildings if he doesn’t give them “their” money for the work they did for him. What work, he says; he doesn’t know these women. Then we see that the women’s eyes have no pupils, they are pure whiteness, as we’ve seen in films about zombies. The owner calls the police and has them removed, but later they make good on their threat to start a fire. Issa believes that the fire was started by the same people who burned the marriage bed. Still suffering from his strange symptoms, he investigates. Then, shockingly, he finds something in the video of the wedding reception that horrifies him.

The resolution of the film combines the administration of justice with the fulfillment of Ada’s love for Souleiman. The ending is almost achingly romantic, yet it satisfies because Diop has presented us with a richly detailed portrait of a people, a culture, that is steeped in tradition and religious faith.

Atlantique belongs to a genre that includes many of the romantic film masterpieces of the past, such as Vigo’s L’Atalante, Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu and Sjostrom’s silent The Wind. Another example, a pretty obvious one, is Hitchcock’s The Birds. Here, Diop depicts the sea as an activator of justice, transporting the spirits of the dead in the process. More recently, Ghost can be said to belong to it, especially in how it makes romantic love triumphant. Such films, quasi-fantasies all, try to show nature itself as a willful and moral force that propels its characters toward the triumph of justice in the real world.

 

Motherless Brooklyn

The film that was chosen to close the festival, Motherless Brooklyn, is a very ambitious project. Ed Norton, who starred, directed and adapted it from a novel by Jonathan Lethem, had multiple ambitions for this enormous project. He wanted a starring role that would showcase his skills as an actor – he plays a detective with Tourette’s syndrome, which causes involuntary tics and odd speech – as well as his qualities as a leading man hero; he wanted a tough detective story that involved high-level political corruption and sexual abuse, reminiscent of Chinatown; and, most importantly, he wanted to send a love letter to a bygone New York. To his credit, he was mostly successful in all these things, and has made a uniquely satisfying film.

actor-director Ed Norton on the set of “Motherless Brooklyn” foto: zombie.com

He was most successful with his first goal. He plays Lionel, a detective in a small agency run by Frank, a childhood friend, played by Bruce Willis. But Frank is killed on the job, and Lionel makes it a personal goal to find his killers. Lionel’s talent as a detective was based on a photographic memory, which he had developed to partially compensate for his affliction. In a film overloaded with dialogue, Lionel has to break off conversation whenever his symptoms strike, which he always apologizes for, and then resume talking. Norton handles this so smoothly that we almost don’t notice it after a while. Norton also makes Lionel into a confident, persistent hero, and his romantic presence with Laura, the woman he falls in love with, played by the lovely Gugu Mbatha-Raw, is a career revelation.

The story opens briskly. Lionel and another detective are assigned to meet Frank to provide backup when he meets some men. Frank only tells them it’s dangerous, but he doesn’t explain. But Frank is killed when the job goes wrong. Before he dies, Frank gasps some words that give Lionel a clue about his killers. Lionel finds out that Frank was hired by an unknown client to investigate a black girl, Laura, who worked for the Building Authority. But she was also very involved in trying to stop the destruction of minority neighborhoods by billionaire Moses Randolph, who planned to build luxury apartments there. Randolph, played by Alec Baldwin, expected to get approval from the city because the plan included a major “cultural” center. The background on this, of course, is the creation of Lincoln Center by Robert Moses.

By the end of the film, which is nearly two and a half hours, we’ve been reminded of other detective films and their familiar tropes: the hero is threatened and beaten by thugs; he falls in love with the targeted woman; action scenes result in the death of an innocent man. Norton gets us through the long exposition scenes in the beginning – which are too wordy and complicated, as is usual for such films – but eventually rewards our patience with well-staged action, and an emotionally satisfying love relationship. But is justice served at the end? Sorry, that’s a spoiler.

The similarities to Chinatown are almost painfully obvious. A rich and powerful businessman has a secret from his past involving a sexual relationship, with the hero becoming romantically involved with a woman who may hold the key to that secret. But most obviously, the discovery of the secret also reveals layers of political corruption controlled by the businessman.

Is it a problem that this template – although laid down with flair and intelligence – also feels just a little strained and familiar? Yes, it is. Clearly Norton was excited by the idea of applying it to a rich part of New York history, one that was headline-driven for months. I enjoyed that theme in the film, but partly because I had lived through it in real time, and have memories of the major players. Cherry Jones, for instance, is playing a character who is clearly a stand-in for Jane Jacobs, the fiercest opponent of the plan.

Still, reflective irony is part of the fun, and it’s cleverly done here. We know that the story must wind up with Randolph’s plan being actually completed. We have to accept that this genius builder, who is based on an important historical figure, is actually a murderer, but that this fact was irrelevant to him achieving his vision. To cap it off, I think that Norton is gratified that the first viewers of the film are seeing it in one of the very theaters that owes its existence to Moses’ project.

Another problem facing the film is that so much of this sixty-year old background story is virtually unknown to most of the country. The final scene is almost the very definition of an “inside” joke. Frank left Lionel a deed to a house in some remote place. Lionel meets Laura there, and they sit on the porch watching the ocean tide lap against the deserted beach. Lionel tells her that this place may turn out to be something someday. I won’t spoil it, but the “place” is called “the H______”.

I should mention the incidental pleasures of the supporting cast: it includes the always welcome Michael K. Williams, as an unnamed but leading hard-bop jazz trumpeter, as well as Willem Dafoe in the crucial role of Randolph’s brother, Paul. A rage-filled impoverished engineer, Paul has known his brother’s secret for many years, and only reveals it when pressured by Lionel. Dafoe is given some of the densest and wordiest speeches, which he growls out satisfactorily. His brother’s eventual revenge is fitting, and no surprise.

Finally, however, the scope of the film gave rise to a serious lapse in execution. We are seeing a vision of New York that existed some sixty years ago. A filmmaker can always look for places that still remain, and design sets and store signs that make for a faithful-looking reproduction. And you can always get old cars of that period. But the most difficult thing is to show how people actually lived in New York at that time. So much of the film takes place on streets populated with New Yorkers walking those streets, buying in those stores and riding the subway. Naturally, they must all be extras who wear the clothes of that period. This is expensive. Norton pulls it off in two scenes showing loud, densely packed demonstrators, one at a raucous public meeting, the other in Washington Square. But I was distracted many times by how phony those other “public” scenes looked. New York is almost defined by its crowds, by the sense of people having to find the space to move, sit or stand. There were no crowds here. The extras were identifiable, freely moving about and sparsely distributed, as if posed for a Reginald Marsh painting. I’m sure that Norton was bothered by this, but just accepted it to stay within budget. No, it’s not a thumbs-downer, but I couldn’t help noticing it.

 

 

 

 

 

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About the author

Michael A. Scott has been watching movies for as long as he could walk down the sidewalk by himself (and even before). I don't always love every movie, yet I founded this website to share my love of movies with people throughout the world.