Headlines hit the camera as in a movie by Sam Fuller; a burst of gunfire is set against a flower arrangement out of Vertigo; a scene where Frank exacts revenge on a shopkeeper is staged in a fixed master shot as it might have been in 1910. Brief flashbacks or mental visions are spliced into the main narrative – which, of course, is a flashback already.
Scorsese’s sociological side, too, is much to the fore. Charts could be made tracking what various characters like to eat and drink (Hoffa is a teetotaller, but appreciates hot dogs fried in beer). Questions of etiquette are frequently debated and there are hints of a secret history of 20th-century politics, especially in relation to JFK.
By design, much of The Irishman has the inconsequence of so-called real life: pointless conversations, random coincidences, tiny moments that stick in the mind for no good reason. Frank himself is nobody special – not even a psychopath; he’s just a guy who has figured out what it takes to make headway in a violent world.
Yet the film is also a slow-burning melodrama, centred on Frank’s relationships to other men (women hardly exist for him, though he’s married with daughters). He serves both the charismatic Hoffa and the gnomelike Bufalino: he loves them both, and they love him too.
In contrast to De Niro’s restraint, Pacino gives the most Pacino of performances: the hoarse sing-song, the bellowing, the revival preacher gestures. Much of the time Hoffa seems like the central personality, the one with the tragic arc. But ultimately the story belongs to Frank: a guy not much different from the rest of us, a sinner with an outside chance at redemption.
By the end, we can see that the whole of this enormously long film has been organised around a single shocking moment, which has reverberations both before and after in the form of the violent acts Frank carries out with such diligence and expertise.
It might be that these split-second bursts of psychotic energy are where Frank, like so many Scorsese heroes, truly comes alive. Everything else is just existence – for whatever that is or isn’t worth.”
Last Christmas ★★★½
Last Christmas was the brainchild of British producer David Livingstone (Judy) who was pondering on Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life when he came up with the idea that George Michael’s hit song, Last Christmas, might provide the seed for an optimistic romantic comedy set during the holiday season. He then took it to Emma Thompson, who thought of Bridesmaids’ director Paul Feig because of his fondness for films with strong female roles. Set in 2017 London, wannabe singer Kate (Game of Thrones‘ Emilia Clarke) is doing everything, including couch-surfing, to avoid returning home to her Eastern European mother Petra (played by Thompson). Reviewer Sandra Hall found Thompson stole the show and “is becoming one of British cinema’s comic institutions because of her embrace of self-deprecation”.
“The script was co-written by Thompson and British performance artist Bryony Kimmings, who clearly has a passion for visual gags because the script has planted opportunities for them everywhere – especially when Kate gets to Yuletide Wonderful, owned by the habitually sleek Michelle Yeoh, which is a glittering cave of kitsch designed expressly to assault the eye and outrage the senses. Kate is required to get into the spirit of things by wearing an elf costume. Even so, she and the costume are in danger of being upstaged by her eyebrows, which seem to be on a comic trajectory of their own. They’re seldom still.
Romance arrives when she meets Tom (Henry Golding from Crazy Rich Asians), a handsome mystery man whose idea of a date is to take her on a walking tour of London’s hidden places. He becomes both her confidant and supporter while remaining strangely elusive. We have to contain our curiosity, however, until the last narrative twist.
For the moment, it’s Kate’s state of disorganisation which takes centre stage, along with her relentless introspection and late-night drinking bouts. Eventually, having exhausted all other options, she gives in and goes home to mother, who greets her with yet another torrent of unwelcome advice.
There are plenty of funny bits. Thompson is a delight and I appreciated the controlled elegance displayed by Yeoh in affording us a rare glimpse of her sense of humour. But the central romance lacks any trace of spontaneity and there’s something very stagey and deliberate in the way Kate is steered towards the realisation that altruism is a healthier alternative to her old habit of non-stop self-absorption.
Feig does get things together for a grand finish full of feel-good moments. Clarke finally delivers in this scene. But I came away with an increased admiration for Richard Curtis and his facility for whipping unassuming ensemble comedies into confections which send you out with an urge to experience the most cheering gags all over again. Admittedly, Feig and Thompson are trying for something a little more serious here but they’re also less adroit when it comes to keeping sentimentality out of the picture.”
Doctor Sleep ★★½
Stephen King’s 2013 novel Doctor Sleepwas a belated sequel to his 1977 horror The Shining, which American writer-director Mike Flanagan has now brought to the screen. The film is also meant to be a direct sequel to Kubrick’s, reproducing many of its best-remembered visual ingredients; but unlike Kubrick, Flanagan favours a more a traditional storytelling style. A troubled young telepath Danny Torrance has grown into a troubled middle-aged alcoholic (Ewan McGregor, whose psychic ability to “shine” remains, as do his memories of the Overlook Hotel and of his monstrous father Jack – played in Stanley Kubrick’s film by Jack Nicholson and here by Henry Thomas. After kicking the booze, Dan finds an unlikely vocation as a hospital orderly, using his special powers to comfort dying patients. Meanwhile a cult of mystical villains set out to achieve immortality by torturing and murdering children and next in line is a gifted 12-year-old named Abra (Kyliegh Curran), who shares a telepathic bond with Dan. “After much build-up these two finally meet face-to-face – and from there Doctor Sleep hasn’t many surprises to spring, though the plot still has miles to go,” says reviewer Jake Wilson.
“With the conventional prestige picture in decline, Hollywood seems to be turning to alternate models of classy product, one of which is so-called ‘elevated’ horror. This is at best a mixed blessing, though at least these films are usually well-cast: Rebecca Ferguson goes to town here as cult leader Rose the Hat, whose evil is accompanied by both theatrical flair and an attractive bohemian freedom.
The task of keeping us emotionally engaged falls to McGregor — an uncommonly versatile actor, if not in the most obvious sense. While he may be yet to master a fully convincing American accent, he can fit into films of seemingly any tone or genre, showing equal comfort with minimalism or shameless cheese. His performance here draws on some of this range, tending by necessity towards the less subtle end of the spectrum: Dan’s last lines in particular are the sort many actors might struggle to utter convincingly with a straight face.
Superficial homages aside, few echoes of Kubrick’s peculiar genius can be found anywhere in Doctor Sleep. I was, however, reminded of a recent film no less divisive than The Shining: Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, in which the real-life Manson Family figure as a rough equivalent to Rose’s sinister crew.
While Tarantino’s critics often write him off as a crude black-and-white moralist, careful examination invariably reveals a more complex picture. But with Doctor Sleep, no room is left to doubt that the good characters merit sympathy and the bad ones deserve to suffer. That would be fine in a fairytale, if it were short and sweet enough, but it seems a meagre vision for two and a half hours.”
Pain and Glory ★★★★
Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar’s latest filmic outing is about a world famous filmmaker called Salvador Molla (Antonio Banderas) who has stopped writing because of the pain. Aside from an interaction with one of his old collaborators, an actor with a taste for smoking heroin, Alberto (Asier Etxeandia), Molla hardly leaves the house. He is still recovering in part from the death of his mother Jacinta (Penelope Cruz) four years earlier. At age 70, Almodovar has secured his place as one of the greatest filmmakers of the past 40 years, and according to reviewer Paul Byrnes: “He could put his feet up if he wished: instead he gives us a beautiful, elegiac meditation on why he can’t do that, even if his feet hurt.”
“Almodovar’s films have been getting more autobiographical as he ages – although not in a straightforward manner.
Salvador Molla is made up of an anagram of Almodovar, of course. Banderas too is made up to look like more like Almodovar, with a finger-in-the-socket shock of grey hair; the apartment is a replica of the one Almodovar occupies in Madrid, with some of the director’s own fabulous art; Molla even wears some of his director’s real clothes. This is me, the director is telling us – alone, crumpled, cranky and hermet-like at 70. Still there is always more than meets the eye with Almodovar – or more that his eye wants us to meet.
The entire film is a reverie; in fact, an attempt by a grand master to take stock – without sentiment, and with more clarity and less obfuscation that he usually deploys to protect himself. Almodovar goes further in a confessional mode than ever before. It’s not as overtly comical as we expect, partly because of the pain, but even then he depicts it in a clever, unsentimental way – with a short animated montage that objectifies all his ailments: depression, tinnitus, fused back, migraines, insomnia, dodgy lungs. All of which is apparently true.
Banderas is transformed in this role: haggard, pale, haunted by his memories, but still with a warmth that makes it easy to believe he has a lifetime’s great work behind him. The question, he wonders, is whether he has anything good ahead? And the film is its own answer: a masterful, melancholy, tender, lacerating self-examination, filled with colour and light and the ghosts of those he has loved. Almodovar at 70, and perhaps astonishing to himself, continues to grow.”
Emu Runner ★★★½
This Australian film, which screened at Toronto and Sydney film festivals, is about a nine-year-old Indigenous girl, Gem (Rhae-Kye Waites), who befriends a wild emu. Set in the outback NSW town of Brewarrina, Gem would fish with her mother Darlene (Maurial Spearim) and her elder sister Valerie (Letisha Boney) on the Barwon River after school. It’s a routine that connects the girls to the land and the creatures they see. As her school’s running champion, Gem takes to the emu because the ungainly-looking bird is speedier than she is. She also learns it’s the totem of her mother’s clan – a discovery that becomes even more precious when Darlene dies suddenly from cardiac arrest and Gem begins to regard the creature as a link to the mother she’s lost.
“Emu Runner is a quietly introspective film that writer-director Imogen Thomas put together with the help of the indigenous community of Brewarrina,” writes reviewer Sandra Hall. “She’s been going to the town since an arts project sent her there 16 years ago. Her stay grew into a long-running collaboration which produced a short film featuring some of the town’s kids. She then conceived this one with the help of the indigenous director of a Brewarrina pre-school, Frayne Barker.
Unfolding entirely from Gem’s point-of-view, it invites us to watch her as she watches the emu, playing truant to observe it around the bush near the river and stealing food to leave for it to find as it makes its rounds. Its welfare is turning into a secret obsession that is rapidly consuming her days. To the adults around her, her behaviour becomes a ‘problem’ they can’t do anything about because she won’t talk to them.
Like most of the cast, Waites is a local with little acting experience but she gives a performance infused with a concentrated sense of purpose. It’s clear from every move she makes that the emu has become Gem’s bulwark against the overwhelming nature of her grief.
There are few surprises here. And there’s a slightly heavy-handed predictability in the way the denouement plays out. But by the time it’s done, you’ve gained a clear insight into the way racial prejudice can precipitate a rush to judgment by even the seemingly enlightened.”
The Furies ★★
Australian writer-director Tony D’Aquino’s first low-budget feature follows the story of the tough yet vulnerable Kayla (Airlie Dodds), who on first appearance is being chased through the bush by an axe-wielding maniac. Yet nothing is quite as straightforward as it first appears. Kayla is an epileptic whose fits periodically cause her to hallucinate and black out, yet it does not wholly explain her disorientation when she finds herself stranded in the bush. She has vague memories of lying on an operating table and something odd has been done to her eyes. And now she and other young women find themselves being hunted, with glitching video surveillance suggesting sophisticated sinister forces are operating behind the scenes, says reviewer Jake Wilson.
“The main action of the film is reminiscent of The Hunger Games, but with a lot more gore. After several decades of slasher movies, you would think filmmakers would be running out of ways to mistreat the human body, but there are a few variations on the theme here you may not have seen previously, unless you happen to be an aficionado of the form.
From the outset, there are unsubtle hints D’Aquino has conceived the film as a feminist allegory. The wilderness that surrounds the heroines stands explicitly for patriarchy, which not only surrounds them, but has infiltrated their bodies and minds, encouraging them to turn on each other.
But the effort to combine sermonising and sadism at worst feels hypocritical, and even at best has a vaguely self-congratulatory air. After all, many earlier horror films have addressed similar themes without being so heavy-handed about it.
Still, The Furies is pacy and extreme enough to hold attention across its brief running time and shows a technical skill that should let it serve as the calling card it’s obviously intended to be.”
Arctic Justice ★★½
In the golden age of animation, after the likes of Toy Story and Frozen, it’s easy to spend millions and still make something really awful that won’t stand basic market scrutiny, let alone the demanding appetites of tots who have little time for anything not quite so lustrous, finds reviewer Paul Byrnes.
“Adults might enjoy the screwball weirdness of the world in Arctic Justice, aka Arctic Dogs, aka Polar Squad. It has a good vocal cast, headed by Jeremy Renner as a cute Arctic fox (the all-white ones). He lives in what looks like a Tyrolean ski resort in the Arctic with a bunch of other animals (rabbits, beavers and bears – grizzly and polar) who are content not to eat each other. Swifty the fox hates being so invisible in the snow. He wants to be noticed.
The heroes in these parts are the Top Dogs, big husky canines that deliver the mail. Swifty dreams of becoming one, even though he has none of their bulk or power. His best pal PB (a polar bear voiced by Alec Baldwin) tries to keep him grounded, but Swifty is a dreamer – like 90 per cent of the boy heroes in children’s animation. Heidi Klum (yes, that one) voices the love interest, a comely red fox with a huge engineering brain. John Cleese does the bad guy – a walrus with a plan to drill the Arctic and accelerate global warming. James Franco squawks as a bird-brained albatross.
I’m not qualified to say how much of this might connect with a modern child’s worldview: delivering the mail is an important job, but an unusual aspiration for a movie hero. On the other hand, much of it connects to some of the anxieties children now grow up with, such as global warming and industries that despoil the earth. The mistake is to think being right on is enough to paper over the project’s lack of a good script.
It’s more like a compendium of familiar ideas bolted together and painted white – a snow job, in other words.”
Jake Wilson is a film critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
Sandra Hall is a film critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Paul Byrnes is a film critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.