Not Marvel Movies. Films reviewed: The Irishman, Last Christmas, Midway

Posted in 1940s, 1960s, 1970s, Christmas, Corruption, Crime, Cuba, Hawaii, Romantic Comedy, UK, Unions, War, Woody Harrelson, WWII by CulturalMining.com on November 8, 2019

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Martin Scorsese recently wrote that tentpole movies, like ones that Marvel makes, are hogging a disproportionate share of Hollywood bucks. This squeezes traditional, medium-budget, one-off films out of the picture. Luckilly, they’re not all gone.  This week, I’m looking at three films – a crime drama, a war movie and a rom-com – without superheroes.

The Irishman

Dir: Martin Scorsese

It’s the 1950s.

Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) is a truck driver who delivers beef hindquarters. When his truck breaks down on the highway, a strange man offers advice on how to fix it. He’s Russell Buffalino (Joe Pesci) a mob boss in Pennsylvania. When Sheeran is caught stealing beef, Russell supplies a lawyer, thus starting a longtime relationship between the trucker and the Mafia. And Teamsters, the truckers union, stands with them all the way. Soon Frank is doing a different kind of work for Russell: he paints houses. Which really means he’s a hitman for the mob. Despite his Irish background, he speaks Italian: he served in the Army in Anzio in WWII. Soon they’re thick as thieves, and Frank enjoys the benefits, but Russell is always the boss.

Eventually he’s sent to Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the head of Teamsters as a bodyguard, as well as the middleman between Hoffa and the mob. Hoffa is a brash firebrand, an old-school union organizer with legions of loyal members. He’s also an extremely powerful leader, and he controls the union’s pension. This means he can finance Las Vegas casinos with cash, something banks refuse to do. And he gives money to the Nixon campaign, a rare instance of a labour union officially supporting a Republican. But friction grows between Hoffa and the mafia until the day Hoffa mysteriously disappears without a trace, his body never found. What happened to Jimmy Hoffa?

The Irishman is narrated by Frank in an old age home, which gives it the feel of an old man’s movie. It’s a Forest Gump for gangsters, with Frank somehow tied to all the major events of the 60s and 70s: The Kennedies, Bay of Pigs, Jimmy Hoffa disappearance, to name just a few. This film has some problems: the CGI de-aged faces look wooden; female characters have virtually no lines – they just scowl and disapprove; and it’s missing the sharp edges and sexual zing of Scorsese’s early movies.

That said, I was never bored; I was glued to the screen the whole time. Pacino is fantastic as Jimmie Hoffa, and Scorsese’s movies are always superior.

The quality of filmmaking is superb and The Irishman tells a great story.

Last Christmas

Dir: Paul Feig

Kate (Emilia Clarke) is an quirky, aspiring young singer in London. By day she’s a cute little green elf, working in a kitschy, Christmas-themed gift shop run by a prickly boss named Santa (Michelle Yeoh). By night, she’s a barfly, sleeping with any guy she fancies, a different one each night. Ever since her operation, she’s been depressed. She’s embarrassed by her Yugoslavian family, and her singing career is going nowhere fast. She’s on a downward spiral of self-pity and self desctruction… until she meets Tom (Henry Golding).

Tom is everything Kate is not. He’s saintly, altruistic and generous. While Kate looks down and sees garbage tips, Tom looks up and sees tropical birds and quaint old signs. He takes her on a walk to show her the hidden side of London – a secret garden where people go to be alone; a soup kitchen for the homeless (he’s a volunteer), a deserted skating rink. Is it love? But he disappears for days at a time. What secret is he hiding? Is this true love? And can their relationship keep them together?

Last Christmas is a cute Romcom about a depressed woman coming out of her shell and her happy-go-lucky, would-be boyfriend. Emma Thompson plays Kate’s weepy Croatian mom and she also co-wrote the script. It’s cute and heartwarming… but not that funny.

Michelle Yeoh is terrific as a middle-aged woman still on the hunt, and Clarke and Golding make an appealing romantic couple. There is a totally surprising twist which brought tears to my eyes – No Spoiler – which left me with a bit more than I expected.

Midway

Dir: Roland Emmerich

It’s 1941, with war raging across Europe, China and the Pacific. But the US is cautiously viewing it from the sidelines. Dick Best (Ed Screin) is a gum chewing pilot based in Pearl Harbour. He’s a daredevil dive bomber, showing off his new techniques. Also on board the aircraft carrier is his rival, a by-the-books officer named McClusky (Luke Evans). He says Dick is a cowboy who should stop showing off. But while their aircraft carrier is out at sea, all the ships in Pearl Harbour are wiped out in a surprise attack by the Japanese, pulling the US into WWII.

Only Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson) – the intel expert on Japan – predicted it. And he thinks a crucial battle up ahead: the Battle of Midway, an island in the South Pacific. Midway is a point crucial for control of the Pacific: if Layton is right, whoever wins the battle will win the war; it’s just a matter of time.

Midway is a dramatization of the years leading up to the naval battle of Midway, and the intense fight that follow: in submarines, on aircraft carriers and in planes overhead. It’s filtered through the eyes of lantern-jawed military figures like Jimmy Doolittle ( Aaron Eckhardt), Admiral Nimitz (Woody Harrelson) Vice Adm Bull Halsey (Dennis Quaid), and many semi-fictional sailors and pilots in various acts of bravery… like Bruno Gaido (Nick Jonas, of the Jonas brothers!). The story also switches back and forth to the Japanese side, with Admirals Nagumo, Yamaguchi and Yamamoto plotting to defeat the Americans.

Midway is exactly the sort of movie I can’t stand – yet another tired war pic about a long-forgotten battle, filled with smarmy patriotism. But I went to the press screening, and guess what? I actually really liked Midway! Fantastic special effects, complex battles shown in an easy-to-follow way, good acting, and great characters. Japanese are portrayed respectfully, not as hokey villains, but without covering up their war crimes in Eastern China. Like The Irishman, women are there mainly to worry about their husbands. It’s two hours, twenty minutes long, but the thrills keep you staring, rapt, till it’s over. I’m sure a lot of critics are going to compare it (unfavourably) with Dunkirk, but to me Midway is more thrilling, less ponderous.

Midway and Last Christmas both start today in Toronto; check your local listings. And The Irishman is screening at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, also beginning today.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

Sorry, Charley. Movies reviewed: She’s Out of my League, The Ghost Writer, The Messenger

Today I ponder whether, in the words of Charley the Tuna, people should look for movies with good taste or movies that taste good.

How do you choose what movie to see, anyway? If you’re like a lot of people, you go because of the actor, the director, the title, or the genre, not because of the movie itself. So it’s:

“Oh – Maggie Gyllenhall is in it. She’s so funny!”

“Hey Scorsese directed this one… Scor-SE-se…!”

“Well, like, I really liked Nightmare on Elm Street, so if Nightmare was good, Nightmare XII must be twelve times better…”

This isn’t irrational behaviour, it actually makes sense to keep choosing something you liked last time, rather than gamble on something new that may not be good.

That’s why we keep getting endless sequels, franchises, movie brands. Those are the McDonald’s movies that taste good… or if not actually good, at least you know what it’s going to be, no surprises. But who wants to spend all their life sucking super-sized pablum through a plastic straw – and miss out on all the hidden old diners, the suburban strip mall roti shops, the Greek bakeries… mmmm… Ok I’ve mangled the food metaphor enough. I‘m hungry. But do you get my point? I’m encouraging movie goers to be a bit more adventurous in their movie choices.

A warning: watch out for the good-taste ones, the “Oscar-bound” unwatchable, PBS-style dreck, where they think the mere hint of an English accent, period costumes, or a tedious biopic plot “based on a true story” is enough to rescue a dull movie. If I have to waste an hour and a half at a crappy movie, I’d rather it’s one that tastes good, not one with good taste.

Out of My League

Dir: Jim Field Smith

First, some junk food: “Out of my League”. I wanted to see this movie because it seemed funny and I like Canadian actor Jay Baruchel. It is directed by a young British comedy guy named Jim Field Smith, and written by the team who will bring us the upcoming dubious comedy “Hot Tub Time Machine”.

Kirk is a meek and nerdy, but nice, guy who works at the airport in Pittsburg with his three high school buddies. He still lives with his parents and pines for his ex-girl friend who dumped him years ago. His friends –Jack a handsome mechanic, Nate, who is married but loves Disney romances, and Stainer (a little like Stiffler from American Pie, but unsuccessful with women) who plays in a Hall and Oates tribute band – his friends like hockey – the Penguins – bowling, and kibitzing, trading barbs with one other. They tell Kirk he’s a moodle – a man-poodle without any self-esteem.

When he meets Molly, a beautiful, rich and successful lawyer-turned-event planner, Kirk can’t believe it when a “ten” like her falls for a five like him. Neither can his family or friends, and they make sure to tell them so. Can this relationship work?

The story’s a bit weak; it’s more of an excuse to say clever things and show funny embarrassing situations. This is a pretty funny movie with lots of good lines and gags. For example, Kirk’s ex-girlfriend doesn’t use air quotation marks, she uses what looks like an air semi-colon. Jay Baruchel is good as Kirk, and TJ Miller as Stainer and Krysten Ritter as Patty, Molly’s cruel side-kick, are both really good. This is a rare comedy in that there are funny female characters, not just guys. The movie’s uneven though — sometimes it’s hilarious, sometimes it’s deadly for long stretches – but it works as a light romantic comedy, with more emphasis on the comedy than the romance.

The Ghost Writer

Dir: Roman Polanski

I chose to see Roman Polanski’s new movie, the Ghost Writer, in the hope that it would be one of his good movies not one of his bad ones.

Tom, played by Ewen McGregor, is a scruffy London writer, who’s single, with no living relative, and no interest in politics. He’s hired to rewrite the memoirs of a past British Prime Minister, a telegenic Tony Blair-type, because the previous ghost writer washed up dead on the beach, and they need someone to fix up the book.

They offer him a very high wage, but it requires him to move to the US, where the ex-PM is living in self-imposed exile on a windy, deserted Atlantic island. Tom enters this fenced-in, high security world as a gormless, naïve hack, but, gradually becomes enmeshed in the strange political morass and shifting alliances of the Prime Minister’s entourage. A possible war scandal surfaces about the Prime Minister’s role in torture and espionage, and with the scandal comes protestors and aggressive reporters. The plot thickens. Tom uncovers some evidence from his employer’s past – but evidence of what? – and transforms himself from a writer into a sort of a detective who’s trying to figure out who’s who and whodunit.

The movie is stark, barren, overcast and spooky, the characters are suspicious liars, afraid of exposure. There are lots of people whispering behind doors, seen through windows, and breaking into rooms to riffle through papers. Security forces and mass-media compete for dominance. In one scene the characters are all glued to a TV screen in the beach house to find out about themselves, when they suddenly see themselves on the screen watching TV, they look up and there’s a news helicopter hovering right outside the picture window! Classic Polanski.

I liked the movie, it isn’t great or perfect – things like the inappropriate plinky glockenspiely music threw me off – but it’s generally beautifully, spookily shot, and well acted, by McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Kim Cattrall, and Olivia Williams. Even the small roles in the movie are well played, with people like Eli Wallach, Timothy Hutton, and Tom Wilkinson popping up at appropriate moments.

The Messenger

Dir: Oren Moverman

I saw this partly because Woody Harrelson was in it and he usually chooses good movies. This one turned out to be a great movie, but not because of it’s simple story. A plot isn’t enough to carry a movie.

Compare it to “Up in the Air”. That one’s about a man whose job is to tell strangers something they don’t want to hear – in this case, that they’re fired or laid-off. He grudgingly takes a newbie, a much younger woman, under his wing to show her the rules and sensitivities of this odd, alienating and difficult profession, and is forced to deal with the outcomes of what he does, and how it affects his own life.

“The Messenger” is very similar. It’s about a military captain, Woody Harrelson, who’s job is tell strangers something they don’t want to hear – in this case, that their next of kin, a soldier, had just died. He grudgingly takes a newbie, a decorated, injured young officer, played by Ben Foster, under his wing to show him the rules and sensitivities of this odd, alienating and difficult profession, they are forced to deal with the outcomes of what they do, and how it affects their own lives.

So why did “The Messenger” turn out to be such a terrific movie, why did it affect me so strongly, while “Up in the Air”, essentially the same picture, sucked and left me cold?

I think it because “The Messenger” really cared for the story and the characters – they weren’t jokey bit parts shown in quick succession like in “Up in the Air”. They were real people; it took these scenes at a slower pace, and really explored their lives and emotions as encapsulated in moment they realize they’re hearing about death.

There were two or three devastating instances of next-of-kin reactions to the two soldiers’ revelations. The pathos of this movie really hits you hard.

It also follows the relationship of the young soldier and a new widow, Olivia, played by Samantha Morton. She’s the real surprise: Morton’s a British actress, but she is perfect as the young, plain American army wife. With the exception of a bad wedding scene, “The Messenger” is told subtly, without gushing violins, people running to catch a train, or walking hand in hand on a beach sunset.

Good taste, and tastes good.

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