The Irishman 2019 ***

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There was once a discipline and economy to making a feature film; directors complained, but cinema-owners could only show a film so many times a day, and even video-tape cost money. The digital age allows Netflix to give directors carte blanche to make films of any length, and last year’s bloated awards magnet Roma is followed by 219 long minutes of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. Perhaps there’s a good film in there trying to get out, but handicapped by a rubber-faced CGI cast and over-familiar material, The Irishman is a limp, late return to happy hunting grounds for Scorsese.

Scorsese has a reputation as a master of cinema; Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas are all electrifying movies. What they have in common in style is the glamorisation of real-life criminal behaviour, and striking busts of violence. As a result, Scorsese has a large following with imitations as brazen as Todd Phillips’ Joker. But when the director tackles other subjects, in comedies like After Hours, or reverent biographies like Kundun, or literary adaptation like The Age of Innocence, or religious drama like Silence, and one thing’s for sure; the audience won’t show up. Bullets through brains is what Scorsese’s audience want, and the Irishman has plenty of that.

Don’t expect the old-school killings of The Godfather here; in The Irishman, executions happen at Grand Theft Auto speed, a flash of a weapon and a fountain of blood. Indeed, Robert DeNiro even looks like a video-game character, his gait awkward at every age he portrays as hit-man Frank Sheeran. We start in the 1950’s, and finish up four decades later, with the changes marked by the roll of history on Frank’s tv screen. Sheeran works his way up to a position serving, and then betraying, his boss, Teamster Jimmy Hoffa, played energetically under melting candle make-up by Al Pacino. Business associates come and go, with Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Jesse Plemons, Jack Huston and others milling around the edges, and even old pals Joe Pesci and Hervey Keitel get in on the act.

As always with Scorsese, the editing is crisp, the cars and clothes are ideal, and there’s some absorbing scenes; a discussion about fish takes on great meaning. Robbie Robertson contributes an ideal score to compel the viewer through any lapses of conversation, while the needle-drops are always on point. But the length is hellish and self-defeating; this is a tv show, not a movie, and Frank’s story is lazily told without discipline. As with Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese seems happy to find a unreliable story-teller and credulously set everything the say down as gospel truth, offering a narrow view, and a woman or morality-free text. Every time Frank mentions an explosion, the film stops to show it, an effect that comes close to self-parody, although the sight of rows of yellow cabs being dumped in the river is an arresting one. Steven Zallian’s dialogue similarly suffers from clichés; to paraphrase, it’s all ‘Jimmy the Snake taught me one thing; you never wanna cross Blind Willie McF*ck…’ Reflections on family and justice are marginalised by forensic attention to fashion and music.

Those who ignore all Scorsese’s other work will lap up the sudden shootings and the macho badinage of The Irishman, which is based on a book by Charles Brant. But the rubbery faces will put off casual viewers; The Irishman often looks like cut-scenes for a video-game, with mottled skin-tones and slick hairstyles that distract from what the characters say. There would be no place for an expensive dud like The Irishman at the cinemas; even on streaming, it’s likely to vanish quickly as a bizarre footnote to Scorsese’s career.

A Good Woman is Hard to Find *** 2019

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There’s a trope in thrillers that should really have been retired, in which an inexperienced, physically weak person somehow triumphs against one, two or possibly three professional criminals. Even the likes of Quentin Tarantino, usually keen to turn a cliché inside out, isn’t averse to this unlikely scenario in films like True Romance. Maybe there’s a place for this kind of nonsense in a lightweight Jackie Chan action comedy, but it’s increasingly problematic when a film is deadly serious in intent, and it’s a frustrating flaw in Abnor Pastoll’s otherwise accomplished A Good Woman is Hard to Find.

Sarah Bolger is the big draw here, giving a big, empathetic performance as Sarah, a mother of two whose life in a Belfast housing estate has already been disrupted before the story begins; her husband has been killed, their son is rendered mute, and Sarah has a full time job just holding her family together. Callous criminal Tito (Andrew Simpson) bursts into her life when he attempts to hole up in her family home, complete with a package of drugs. But when one of Sarah’s kids opens the package, events spiral out of control in a violent way, leaving her with an increasingly difficult path to protect her family.

Ronan Blaney’s script manages to fashion a Loachian realism in the early stages, capturing a bleak, hard-scrabble existence that’s very much in line with Bolger’s grounded turn. But the plot mechanics are stretched to breaking point, with loquacious hoodlums circling and far, far too many deaths to avoid credulity going out the window. Having the bad guys discuss the connection between Tito’s name and the Yugoslavian dictator is the kind of indulgent, knowing dialogue that’s thankfully fallen out of fashion; the less we know about Sarah’s antagonists, the more frightening they are. Showing pond-life thugs engaging in writerly Alan Bennett wordplay throws the film’s gyroscope fatally out of whack.

But there’s a reason for reviewing, and for seeing a film like A Good Woman Is Hard to Find, and that’s Bolger. Increasingly the go-to girl for a strong performance, she burns up the screen as a protective, vulnerable mother, and she makes the film sing even when the clichés start to show. This is a tough, intermittently gripping thriller, but Bolger gives it a heart that makes A Good Woman is Hard to Find a cut above the norm.

Love and Bullets *** 1979

love and bulletsThe party line on Charles Bronson vehicle Love and Bullets is that it’s a stinker; it’s not. One of the better products of Lew Grade’s short-lived ITC label, it’s a film with a chequered history, and would almost certainly have fared better if John Huston has remained at the helm. But there’s quite an assemblage of talent here, starting with director Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke), writer Wendell Mayes (Death Wish) and Oscar-winning cinematographer Fred J Koenekamp, who captures various picture-postcard Swiss locations with some style.

Love and Bullets leans into Bronson’s lack of expression to good effect; as tough Phoenix cop Charlie Congers, he wears pretty much the same expression whether examining a corpse or ordering a cup of coffee. After the death of a colleague, Congers resolves to work with the FBI to bring down a Mafia kingpin Joe Bomposa (Rod Steiger) via Bomposa’s moll, a fast talking lady called Jackie Pruitt, played by Bronson’s soon-to-be-wife Jill Ireland. Pruitt is a fairly exaggerated character, as is the pursuing hit-man Vitorrio Farroni, played with trademark menace by Henry Silva. Congers tries to project Pruitt, dodging FBI and Mafia henchmen alike on a strong sample of trains, cars, funiculars and trams at various Swiss ski resorts.

If Love and Bullets wearied critics by being over-familiar in 1979, Rosenberg’s film feels much fresher now, with genuine chemistry between Bronson and Ireland (one of 15 films together), decent if implausible action (the paper-dart blow-pipe is laughable, but the car-jump from a moving train is still cool) and lots of fringe benefits including a cameo from British sitcom star Lorraine Chase. It’s not as violent as most Bronson pics, but also has a real downbeat, nihilistic stream behind the glamour; it’s a big movie that settles for being an effective B feature.

The Naked Face 1984 ***

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Sidney Sheldon was one of the bestselling novelists of the 20th century; a couple of decades later, and his work has largely been forgotten. The Naked Face was something of a breakthrough novel when published in 1969, with a prescient theme involving psychological profiling in murder cases. By 1984, Sheldon has considered more to be a writer of trashy blockbusters like Masters of the Game rather than a mystery writer, but The Naked Face is a well-plotted thriller, carefully adapted by writer/director Bryan Forbes.

Roger Moore plays Judd Stevens, a Chicago psychiatrist who gets an unpleasant visitation from two cops (Rod Steiger and Elliot Gould). They’re investigating the murder of one of Judd’s patience, and there’s bad blood from a previous encounter when Judd’s testimony got a cop-killer out of a potential jail sentence. Judd refuses to let the police see his confidential files, which only further antagonises them, and turns to an eccentric private detective (Art Carney) to clear his name.

The Naked Face was part of Cannon’s attempts to move from distribution to high-end film-making, and it found few takers on release, perhaps due to a lack of advertising spend. Steiger shouts a lot, while More underplays, and yet the result is quite compelling in places; there’s enough red herrings and plot-twists to divert the mind from Moore’s awful raincoats, smoking jackets and elbow patches. It’s an old-fashioned, dialogue-heavy thriller with good location work; forgotten now, it’s worth exhuming for fans of the mystery genre. The appearance of John Kapelos, the janitor from The Breakfast Club, should be a clincher for cult-movie fans attracted by the Oscar-heavy cast.

 

Night Hunter 2018 ****

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Henry Cavill is at something of a cross-roads right now; the substantially framed leading man did a great job in Mission Impossible; Fallout, and that offsets underwhelming outings as Superman and stale thrillers like The Cold Light of Day. In writer/director David Raymond’s thriller, he’s cast as Marshall, a cop in a quandary; he captures Simon (Brendan Fletcher) a paedophile who has locked up a girl at an unknown location. While a psychologist (Alexandra Daddario) attempts to get inside Simon’s head, Marshall has to balance the demands of his boss (Stanley Tucci) with the girl’s father (Ben Kingsley), who has previously used his daughter as bait to trap and castrate sex-offenders. Night Hunter’s plot has echoes of the final scenes of David Fincher’s Se7en, with the police scrambling to understand the complex machinations of a diseased mind; there are issues relating to mental health in the way that Simon is described, although a late twist changes the meaning of his behaviour. Night Hunter has a few issues of its own, with some of the scenes oddly edited and not always landing squarely. But Raymond has assembled a top-notch cast, all of who perform, with Tucci, Kinsley and particularly Daddario racking up the intensity. For Cavill, it’s a welcome change of pace to see him in a more human role that the usual supermen characters that his physique seems to inspire; he manages to ground the narrative, and helps make Night Hunter an absorbing, intense thriller.

The Informer 2020 ****

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Set for a U.S. release in January 2020, The Informer is a tough, old school crime opus that’s been delayed several times, but is well worth the wait. Andrea di Stefano’s thriller is sold on its connections to Sicario and John Wick, but there’s a down-and-dirty feel about the espionage featured here that’s located somewhere bwteen Homeland and John le Carre. Joel Kinnaman plays Peter Koslow, a special ops undercover agent who is embedded in an FBI mission to shake-down drugs elements in the NYC/Polish community. Koslow has a wife (Blade Runner 2049’s Ana de Armas) and kid to protect, so when a routine pick-up of a diplomatic bag full of drugs goes south, Koslow is forced to witness the death of a cop. This brings in interest from the NYPD’s Grens (rapper Common), who is keen to find out how the cop died and who is responsible; Koslow’s handlers (Rosamund Pike and Clive Owens) seek to contain the mess, but Koslow engineers his own passage out via an audacious prison break. Based on the novel Three Seconds by Roslund/Hellstrom, The Informer’s generic title hides a sober, intensely gripping thriller that’s something of an antidote to much of the silver-screen’s childish fare; the fights are brutal and the stakes are high. Look elsewhere for choreography and stunts, because The Informer makes a virtue of feeling like a real-world story. With a well-known cast well used for once, The Informer’s hard-as-nails attitude makes it one of the best thrillers of the year.

True Romance 1992 *****

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The late Tony Scott was something of a cinematic powerhouse, whose work was consistently underrated; a note on his Wikipedia page says that after The Hunger, he stopped reading the vitriolic reviews his film inspired. Most of these critics are long gone now, but Scott’s canon endures; hits like Top Gun, Crimson Tide and Enemy of the State are all better than average blockbusters, but his other works are remarkable in their consistency; Revenge, The Last Boy Scout, Man on Fire or Unstoppable would be highlights in any director’s resume, whether they appeased the public or not. His best film was a flop; 1992’s True Romance gave Scott a super-hot script, and he did it proud; Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette are ideal as Clarence and Alabama, young newly-weds who scram from snowy Detroit to sunny LA after he romantically murders her pimp Drexl (Gary Oldman under dreadlocks and prosthetics). All kinds of talent are shown to their best advantage here, from Bronson Pinochet’s coke-addled flunky to Brad Pitt’s avuncular stoner Floyd via James Gandolfini’s memorable thug. Scott creates the requisite tension, but also creates two vibrant, dynamic worlds for his characters to inhabit. And at the centre is one of cinema’s greatest scenes; a confrontation between Clarence’s cop father Clifford (Dennis Hopper) and mobster Cocotti (Christopher Walken). Two experienced actors with some great dialogue; Scott gets the best out of them as Cocotti’s threats raise Clifford’s awareness of his predicament. From the moment Clifford accepts his last cigarette, the dynamics of the scene change and it becomes a meditation on defiance in the face of death. Ridley Scott has given interviews regarding the family history of cancer which throw some light on his brother’s suicide; Scott’s elegiac handling of True Romance’s highpoint throws further illumination. Unfairly derided as a man who placed style over content, Tony Scott was in the deep end while most directors were just splashing in the shallows.