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Saturday, 30 November 2019

The Irishman

(MA15+) ★★★★

Director: Martin Scorsese.

Cast: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Anna Paquin, Lucy Gallina, Stephen Graham, Harvey Keitel, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Kathrine Narducci, Welker White, Jesse Plemons, Louis Cancelmi.

"And then I said, 'Rocky and Buckwinkle? Fuck yeah I'm in'."
After the Coen Brothers dared to stream last year with The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs, the floodgates were officially opened for Big Name Directors to start flooding into Netflix. With sweet, sweet cash and unparalleled artistic freedom on the hook, the opportunity was too good for Martin Scorsese to pass up. The streaming giant had caught a big one, perhaps the biggest one of all.

For Scorsese, this was an opportunity to realise his and De Niro's long-held dream of adapting Charles Brandt's biography of mob hitman Frank Sheeran. The film had sat in various levels of development hell for over a decade, but Netflix were willing to throw a remarkable US$170m+ at the project - the biggest budget drama in a long time.

Will it be worth it for Netflix? In money terms, it remains to be seen, but in artistic terms, it's money well spent. The Irishman is familiar territory for Scorsese, harking back to his sweeping mobster epics Goodfellas and Casino. It's just as compelling as those two classics, if a bit slower and more languid in its approach.

Sheeran (played across many decades by a CG de-aged De Niro) is a WWII veteran and meat truck driver who finds himself doing favours for the mob in Philadelphia. Soon he's their go-to hitman, as well as be a good friend and confidante for union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). He suddenly finds himself as a key player in some big moments in history, like Forrest Gump with a revolver.

There are a lot of reasons to recommend this film, but the main ones can be summarised in surnames - Scorsese. De Niro. Pacino. Pesci. This quadruple threat works wonders, wringing every ounce of drama and quiet menace from the material.

Scorsese is remarkably consistent director, even when he's trying new things. With The Irishman, it feels a little like just another day at the office for the legendary director, but the passion is evident. It's like when a band goes "back to basics" and pulls it off. This is familiar territory, but he's not being lazy about it. His trademarks are present - the bravura long takes, the veritas he brings to mob life, the cool soundtrack, the offbeat hints of humour - but he's finding new tricks for telling old stories with his use of the de-ageing CG, which looks incredible as often as it visits uncanny valley.

For his top-billed stars though, this is a return to form. De Niro has been good in great films on occasion over the past decade (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, Joker) but here he's on song like he hasn't been in since the '90s. Likewise for Pacino, who gets to chew scenery as per usual but also dials things down when he needs to.

But both are outmatched by Pesci as mob boss Russell Buffalino. In only his second major onscreen role in over 20 years, Pesci shows he's lost nothing in retirement. His is the quieter of the three main roles, but it demonstrates a rarely seen side of Pesci - one of understatement. There are no fiery bursts of anger that one might expect from Pesci in a Scorsese film - this is subdued command and confidence. It's about the way he leans on words and phrases, the weight he puts into a look. It's a great turn, one of his best.

All three get a lot out of the material, with the screenplay from Steven Zaillian giving them great lines and scenes. His script also lets the story breathe, and while clocking in at three and a half hours might be pushing the friendship, almost every part of the film, in hindsight, feels necessary. As slow and as sprawling as it can be, there's no point where you feel like you want to switch off, and across its last hour and a half, it's unmissable.

Its length, pace and sprawl are little off-putting, and stacked up against its older brothers of Goodfellas and Casino, it's less definitive, less vital. But The Irishman shows us many things - it shows that on their day, De Niro, Pacino and Pesci have still got it. And as for Scorsese... well, he never lost it.

Monday, 18 November 2019

Ford V Ferrari (AKA Le Mans '66)

(M) ★★★★

Director: James Mangold.

Cast: Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Caitriona Balfe, Jon Bernthal, Tracy Letts, Josh Lucas, Noah Jupe, Remo Girone, Ray McKinnon.

The first iPod was somewhat cumbersome.
It's always impressive when a film can take subject matter you're not interested in and make a film you become engrossed in. It's the Moneyball principle - no one is interested in the mathematics of baseball team selection, yet that was an interesting film. And I personally have zero fucks to give about motorsport, but I'll be damned if Ford V Ferrari isn't a great watch.

The trick lies in mastering two of the cornerstones of screenwriting - character and drama. Give us well written characters with great obstacles and challenges to overcome, and we'll watch it and love it. It doesn't matter whether they're competitive knitters trying to make the ultimate sweater, or racing enthusiasts trying to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans road race.

Ford V Ferrari (or Le Mans '66 as it's known in some countries) nails its characters and its drama thanks to a great script courtesy of Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and Jason Keller. It's ably directed by the versatile Mangold, and thrives thanks to two fine performances from the evergreen Matt Damon and Christian Bale. Despite being very much about car design and the philosophy of race driving, it's a very human story that will win over even non-petrolheads like myself.

Damon plays Carroll Shelby, a former racer who turns to car construction and design after retiring. When the Ford Motor Company approaches Shelby to spearhead a campaign to defeat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans road race and help make Fords cool again, he brings in brilliant driver/mechanic Ken Miles (Bale) to his team.

Miles is an unconventional hothead, which grinds the gears of the suits at Ford. But Shelby knows Miles is the key to winning Le Mans, which sets up a battle not only between Ford and Ferrari, but also between Ford and the Shelby/Miles team.

In the water-and-oil pairing of Damon and Bale/Shelby and Miles, Ford V Ferrari has its winning combination. Damon has a good line in likeable American heroes, which is nicely matched to Bale's penchant for prickly customers. But what really shines through in the characters is a mutual respect that simmers below the dialogue. Despite the punches and thrown wrenches, Shelby and Miles come off as two men with an unspoken high regard for each other that slowly blossoms into a real friendship.

It's one of many aspects of the film that is managed beautifully by Mangold, who really is the Mr Versatile of Hollywood (just have a look at his filmography). The key relationship is the engine of the film, but its top gears lie in the exhilarating race sequences. With a combination of stunt driving and CG, Mangold gets us in, under and alongside the cars as they tackle the chicanes and hit 200 miles an hour on the straights. It's gripping stuff.

The racing and the top-billed double act are the key components, but there is a lot to like about the film. Lucas is a wonderfully hissable villain, while Letts gives good bluster as Henry Ford II. It's also very funny in places, and generates a good amount of heart, which largely comes from Miles' relationship with his son (Jupe).

The film's main mis-step comes in one strangely written scene involving an argument between Miles and his wife Mollie (Balfe). It feels utterly contrived - it makes Ken's character seem ridiculous and the whole sequence is bizarre as it somewhat undermines the otherwise beautiful relationship Ken and Mollie share. There are other occasional moments of over-explanation and cliche in an otherwise excellent script, but this scene is a big sore thumb. The only other criticism is that the film is a bit slow to get going, which counts for something when your runtime is two and a half hours, but it's certainly not a great concern as much of the film flies by.

But otherwise, Ford V Ferrari is up there with Rush in the list of finely tuned racing movies. Like Rush, it's a film that uses great turns to bring fascinating real-world characters to life, topping it off with some seat-of-your-pants racing sequences.

Saturday, 9 November 2019

Doctor Sleep

(MA15+) ★★★½

Director: Mike Flanagan.

Cast: Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Kyliegh Curran, Carl Lumbly, Cliff Curtis, Zahn McClarnon, Emily Alyn Lind, Carel Struycken, Jocelin Donahue, Zackary Momoh, Jacob Tremblay, Bruce Greenwood, Alex Essoe.

The graffiti artist's handwriting was atrocious.
Following in the footsteps of Stanley Kubrick is a tough ask. Steven Spielberg pulled it off once, picking up the pieces of A.I. after Kubrick's death, but he's Steven Spielberg and there's not much he can't do.

Writer-director Flanagan is no Spielberg, but his balls must be big enough to roll after Indiana Jones in an ancient tomb. It takes some serious nerve to direct a sequel to Kubrick's The Shining AKA One Of The Greatest Films Of All Time. Not only that, but Flanagan is trying to marry together Stephen King's view of The Shining with Kubrick's (King famously hated Kubrick's film), all the while adapting King's novel Doctor Sleep.

It's a lot for anyone to take on - few films are burdened by such multi-layered expectation - so it's actually surprising how good Doctor Sleep is. It's not on the same level as Kubrick's psycho-horror thriller, but it's definitely in the upper echelons of King adaptations.

As with King's book, Doctor Sleep picks up the story of Danny Torrance not long after the events of The Shining, and finds the boy struggling to deal with what happened at The Overlook Hotel. A visit from the ghost of Dick Hallorann (Lumbly) gives Danny some coping mechanisms, and life goes on.

Skip forward 30 years and it seems Danny (now "Dan" and played by McGregor) isn't coping so well after all. He's an alcoholic, sleeping under a bridge, and hiding his "shining" powers from the world. But that's the least of his troubles - a group of evil soul vampires are roaming the countryside, draining the essence out of people who possess the shining ability.

These soul-suckers have their eyes on a young girl named Abra (Curran), whose shining powers outweigh even Dan's. Abra and Dan are going to have to work together to defeat Rose The Hat (Ferguson) and her squad of shine vampires.

Part of what made Kubrick's The Shining so great was that it was enigmatic. People have poured their puzzlings over its meanings, metaphors and mysteries into documentaries and PhDs. It's such a haunting film about hauntings because it offers no easy answers to its many ghostly and ghastly questions.

Doctor Sleep is far less mysterious. It goes out of its way in its first third to explain what went down at The Overlook Hotel. While part of this set-up is to make this sequel stand on its own two feet, it also feels like King reaching out from the pages to right the perceived wrongs of Kubrick's film.

It makes for a slow and occasionally redundant opening act, but once Doctor Sleep finds its rhythm, it's great. It doesn't feel like a Kubrick film - it's more of a King adaptation as opposed to a Kubrickian sequel. It definitely takes cues from the late great English director - there are no jump scares, plenty of travel sequences shot from overhead, and some of The Shining's signature camera moves (and even scenes) are repeated. But this is a far less psychological affair, and a far more King-ish horror.

It all requires an incredible balancing act between its triple-threat of source material, and writer/director Flanagan does a superb job. Doctor Sleep manages to be engrossing and unnerving, and boasts a pretty good ending for a King story. The presence of a strong cast certainly helps. McGregor is really good in the lead role, Curran is dynamite on debut as the gifted Abra, while Ferguson is disturbingly charismatic as Rose The Hat, as is Lind as her gang member Snakebite Andi.

Some of the throwbacks to The Shining feel a little gratuitous, and it does take a while to get going, but Doctor Sleep is far better than it has any right to be. Flanagan, who previously adapted King's supposedly unfilmable Gerald's Game, is definitely one to watch, whether he's tackling King or not.

Tuesday, 5 November 2019


(M) ★★★★

Director: Rupert Goold.

Cast: RenĂ©e Zellweger, Darci Shaw, Finn Wittrock, Rufus Sewell, Michael Gambon, Jessie Buckley, Richard Cordery, Bella Ramsey, Royce Pierreson. 

"Is it alive, does it thrive, can it survive under the sun? I can't put my finger on it."
Judy Garland's life is the quintessential "chew 'em up, spit 'em out" Hollywood tale. It's a tragic story that ticked the tabloid checklist of the time - the drugs, the multiple husbands, the rebounds, the rehab, and, ultimately, the sad ending.

It's an unfortunate arc that has long fascinated fans, which is why there have been dozens of biographies, both authorised and otherwise, dedicated to dissecting the Judy Garland myth. It's also a dream role for any actor, as Garland was a bundle of contradictions and complexities, of charisma and chaos, or frailties and fierceness.

Those qualities are fully realised with exquisite detail, warmth and humanity by Renee Zellweger, delivering the performance of her career. She displays all the necessary tics and nuances, but never feels like she's dipping into impersonation. This is an immaculate acting display that ensures we see Garland as a real human, and not just the diva she could have been portrayed as.

Based on Peter Quilter's play End Of The Rainbow, Judy doesn't try to tell the whole sorry saga of Garland's life. Instead it explores a final residency she undertook at a London venue just six months before she died of an accidental overdose. Along with some contextual flashbacks to her youth where she was "owned" by MGM, the run of shows serves as a microcosm to explore the dizzying highs and painful lows that ran through Garland's life.

The script by Edge (as with Quilter's play) wisely focuses on a small time frame to get to the heart of Garland. The flashbacks are interesting (and terrifying), but by zeroing in on her time at London's Talk Of The Town, it ensures the film is not a by-the-numbers biopic that attempts to fit a whole life into two hours. Instead, this is about fitting as much of Garland's personality into the runtime. This is about getting an understanding of the contradictions that drove her.

Through Zellweger's immaculate performance we see Garland as erratic and flakey, yet also an amazing performer and often a true professional. She could be passionate and strong-willed, yet also gullible and frail. She was a mother and a star, and the way all these elements clash and collide against each other is gripping yet painful to watch.

There are rays of sunshine amid the London dreariness. Her encounter with two gay fans, is heartwarming and heartbreaking, as is a climactic rendition of Somewhere Over The Rainbow. In fact every light moment has a patch of sadness to follow, and vice versa.

It might not be the cheeriest of films, but it's a worthwhile watch, if only for Zellweger. She delivers the showstopping musical numbers with aplomb. These songs also help break-up proceedings, ensuring that the weight of it all doesn't become too much. The story never drags, and it's deftly edited to ensure there's a light touch amid the inevitable tragedy.

Goold's direction is to be credited here - this could have been a leaden drama with unwieldy musical interludes, but it flows nicely and never outstays its welcome. At times it feels cliched, but that's partly because Garland was a bundle of elements that became cliches (and partly because the way the story is told is a little cliched). She was the original troubled child star, diva burnout, and Hollywood cautionary tale, all rolled into one.

Judy doesn't shy away from the painful truth of its subject, nor does it glorify or condemn Garland for her troubles. It's celebratory of her immense talents and surprisingly sympathetic, while also leaving enough room to wonder what might have been.

Monday, 4 November 2019

Dolemite Is My Name

(R) ★★★★

Director: Craig Brewer.

Cast: Eddie Murphy, Keegan-Michael Key, Mike Epps, Craig Robinson, Tituss Burgess, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, Wesley Snipes, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Snoop Dogg, Chris Rock, Bob Odenkirk.

Currently streaming on Netflix.

"No, you may not smell my flower."
Eddie Murphy is back.


Let's forget the bad films (Norbit, Nutty Professor II, A Thousand Words and so many, many more) and hope that his Lazarus-like return in Dolemite Is My Name is the start of a new and glorious phase of the funnyman's career.

To say this is his best live-action turn in 20 years is meaningless - outside of his Oscar nom for Dreamgirls, his post-1999 career is a wasteland that includes five Razzie nominations for worst actor (including one win). But his headlining turn as Rudy Ray Moore in this funky Netflix biopic is quality stuff from someone whose acting talents are too often in inverse proportion to his ability to pick good roles.

As Moore, Murphy gets to flex a lot of different muscles, including his rarely used dramatic chops and his natural showmanship, as well as his ability to swear like a motherfucker and make it funny as fuck. It's a role ideally suited to his skill set.

Taking place in the '70s, Dolemite Is My Name follows the unlikely rise of Rudy Ray Moore, a washed-up singer/comedian who became a belated underground star in his 40s. Never taking "no" for an answer, he created a DIY empire of albums and films based around his boastin' and toastin' pimp character Dolemite.

As we saw in his early golden period, few people are as funny when they're being foul-mouthed as Eddie Murphy. In some ways Dolemite... recaptures some of that early magic - he's older and more restrained, but when he is freewheeling and shooting his mouth off, it's hilarious. Just as Moore used Dolemite as a vehicle to be crude, rude and comedic, Murphy uses Moore in the same way. It's a throwback to Murphy's glory days.

Dolemite... is an endearing rags-to-riches tale, as Moore puts everything on the line time and time again, developing his own indie DIY approach to film-making and album-producing. It makes for a surprisingly sweet underdog tale of self-belief and doing things your own way.

If anything, the whole thing is too sweet, cussin' aside. Moore is painted as damned near angelic except for his foul mouth. There are no real rough edges to his character - his overwhelming self-belief is his worst trait, and even that is endearing - while the challenges he faces are never really that challenging.

The characters around Rudy Ray Moore get little definition, but are good fun. Lady Reed (played by Randolph) gets a bit to do, but it's mostly to show how great Moore is, while Key is hilarious as the deadly serious playwright that Moore drags into write his blaxploitation vanity project. Similarly Epps, Robinson and Burgess are good in slight roles.

The scene-stealer is Snipes as director/actor D'Urville Martin. It's a flamboyant and interesting role that Snipes makes his own, and as much as this is Murphy's big comeback, Snipes is potentially on the rebound if he can find more roles that service his under-appreciated skills and under-rated comedic flair like this one.

The film's production design and costumes are outstanding, and they combine with a killer soundtrack that helps capture the era beautifully. It all helps sell the fun and funk of the thing. As flawed as Dolemite... is, it's a great time and a good laugh. It's also a fascinating look into an underground figure who was hugely influential on hip hop and black culture.

And if nothing else, Dolemite... is a worthwhile venture if it helps return Eddie Murphy to greatness.