The Mission 1986 *****

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The last time I saw the late Jake Eberts, he was struggling to get distributors to look at a fresh cut of an expensive film. ‘They think they’ve seen it already,’ he whispered to me with his hand over the mouthpiece of his phone, then shrugged; he seemed to sense that he was on a hiding to nothing. And yet Eberts was a truly great producer whose films gained 66 Oscar nominations, including nine for best picture. The Mission was another notable setback for Eberts and Goldcrest films, a big-budget prestige picture that failed to connect to a substantial audience, and which, along with Revolution and Absolute Beginners, almost bankrupted Goldcrest Films. Viewed in 70mm in 1986, it seemed like a secret success, a beautifully mounted and thoughtful film out of step with commercial dictates; re-watched in 2019, The Mission is a film that swells to fill the gap left by its lack of reputation; it’s a really great movie that deserves to be praised, recommended and shared.

Jeremy Irons plays Father Gabriel, a missionary who travels to a remote South American community, who he charms with music; Ennio Morricone’s score, ingeniously integrated into the diegetic music featured, is one of the best of his storied career. Back in the 1740’s, the slave-trade was rife, and scoundrels like Roderigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro) took full advantage; Mendoza operates in a moral vacuum until he kills his own brother in an act of rage, and joins Gabriel’s group as part of his penance. When the Portuguese and Spanish decide to take the land from the indigenous tribes, Gabriel refuses to take up arms, but Mendoza uses his knowledge of combat to lead a spirited defence, although neither tactic slows the invading forces down for long.

The Mission is a powerful film about religion, and comes recommended by the Vatican and the Church Times; the central themes about the on-going conflict between might and love are admirably caught in Robert Bolt’s script, and yet unlike A Man for All Seasons, piety is mixed with explosive action scenes, brilliantly lensed by Chris Menges. The result won the Palm D’Or in Cannes, and the mix of thoughtful rumination on the place of religion and defiant action is still stirring to watch.

Perhaps you feel that you’ve seen The Mission already. But the content was way ahead of it’s time, a contemplation of man’s inhumanity to man, the exploitation of indigenous people and the way that democratic and religious institutions have, deliberately or not, supported that process. Roland Joffe’s film always looked and sounded great, but it’s never been so topical as it is now; the final post-credits stinger, as Cardinal Altamirano (Ray Mcinally) looks questioning to the camera, still invites us to think and act on the on-going tragedy of  man’s inhumanity to man. ‘Thus have we made the world…’ says Altamirano, and that deep sense of responsibility pervades this laudable film.

 

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.

Angel Heart 1987 *****

I was still a teenager when I saw Alan Parker’s 1986 genre-bending horror/detective story; just old enough to beat the 18 certificate. The film ran for several months at my local Odeon; I returned over and over again to watch the print turn ragged on the screen. While friends waxed lyrical on Scorsese and Godard, it was Alan Parker’s film that caught my imagination, so to see a restored blu-ray pressed decades later is a welcome opportunity to revisit a well-thumbed, well-loved text.

The story is simple in synopsis but surprising in execution. Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) is a down-at-heel private eye hired by Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro) to investigate a missing singer by the name of Johnny Favourite. Those unlucky enough to cross Angel’s path end up dead; Angel senses he’s being set up, but it’s only when he travels to New Orleans that the gumshoe begins to realise that supernatural forces are at work, and he’s little more than a pawn in the game.

Michael Seresin’s photography is the first thing to notice here; poor DVD prints haven’t helped the film’s reputation, but this blu-ray looks as good as if not better than the original; it’s hard to think of another film that looks as moist as this, which detailed textures to snow, paper, clothes, sweat and blood. The result is a film that’s vivid and atmospheric, with dream-like interruptions scored to the sound of a beating heart, telling a story with an outrageous twist ending that’s tricky to fully explain in detail.

Based on William Hjortsberg’s book Falling Angel, Parker shifted the action largely from NYC to New Orleans, and also changed the time-period and a few crucial details; elements from the book like the magic show are dropped, despite being remarkably cinematic in their own right. Parker’s use of mirrors, fans and blood is very much his own pictorial style, and while audiences weren’t sure of Angel Heart at the time, it’s clearly a misunderstood work that had a huge influence on Christopher Nolan

Parker’s wry commentary starts by discussing the problems of directing cats; it’s also implied that herding De Niro and Rourke through a number of scenes together wasn’t much easier. De Niro makes something iconic of his devilish character, but it’s Rourke that’s the revelation here. It’s not surprising to hear that Rourke couldn’t act the same scene the same way twice; his work feels spontaneous, and there’s an edge that makes Angel feel both larger than life and vulnerable.

Some of the other extras on this fresh re-issue suggest that Parker was prepared to bend the rules of voodoo in order to get what he wanted from his New Orleans shoot; such comments are interesting, but don’t detract from the film’s power. In the classic notion of drama, Angel’s investigation of his case is a search for himself, and a discovery of an unpleasant truth about human nature. Parker’s film may have been better known for its sex scene than it’s dramatic content at the time, but with the benefit of hindsight, Angel Heart is an essential purchase for fans of all the considerable talents involved, and for horror aficionados in general.

Joker *** 2019

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Once the hubris created by ranks of combustible film-festival critics has dissipated, a press screening of Todd Phillips’ Joker reveals it as a somewhat unexceptional piece of work, a rather flat, by-the-numbers origin story held together by a strong production design and a manic central performance from Joaquin Phoenix. Doubling down on the deadly edge that Heath Ledger brought to the role in The Dark Knight, Phoenix locates the Joker’s heart in poverty, being downtrodden and humiliated; a decent enough conceit, but not a particularly interesting or involving one to watch.

Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) lives with his ailing mother in a tiny apartment in Gotham City; he’s a professional clown, but an encounter with some street thugs encourages him to start packing heat, his gun falls out of his costume during a performance at a children’s hospital, and Fleck is fired. Things spiral downhill in the patented Death Wish/Taxi Driver model, and Fleck’s fascination with an amoral talk show host (Robert De Niro) eventually leads to the formation of the character we know as Joker.

And that’s it, really, the trailer said it all in much more style, and there’s the usual rote staging of the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents, which looks pretty much the same as it did in every movie since the Tim Burton one. For a film so sensitive to the main character’s obsessions, the attitudes to mental health issues are not particularly helpful either; Fleck is portrayed as suffering from a ‘brain injury’ and carries a card that explains to curious strangers that he has a medical condition. Those who carry such cards in real life may well find such scenes unhelpful. Similarly, superhero movies have made a virtue of avoiding guns and real-life violence; having the Joker shoot unarmed people with a handgun, yet remain the film’s most sympathetic character, is somewhat problematic.

All that said, Joker’s feel for a gritty, grimy city, rife with porn and violence circa 1981, is accomplished, and Phoenix is terrific in the central role, bringing the same intensity he brought to the little-seen You Were Never Really Here. Joker is the kind of super-serious venture that lacks comedy, tragedy or humanity; it’s an exploitation of a well-loved but ancient IP that should work for fan-boys, but may well elicit shrugs from the rest of the audience.

Wag the Dog 1997 ***

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In the ‘post-truth’ era, it’s easy to get nostalgic for a time when news was news. David Mamet’s playful Wag The God, back in 1997, shows there’s nothing new under the sun as a Hollywood producer and a spin doctor contrive a war to cover up a Presidential sex-scandal. With heavyweight leads in Robert de Niro (as the PR) and Dustin Hoffman (as the Robert Evans-type producer) , Wag the Dog feels stagey in a good way, never resorting to action when it can show through character and conversation how the media can create it’s own truth. Now that it can be divorced from the Bill Clinton era, Wag The Dog seems to hold a more universal truth and ever. Anyone looking at the Trump/Clinton debate circus and wondering ‘how could this happen?’ would do well to take a look at this clever film about what sticks and what doesn’t, and why post-truth is one step closer to post-apocalypse.

Angel Heart 1987 ****

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Alan Parker got a career best performance from Mickey Rourke as shambolic private-eye Harry Angel in this intense thriller from 1987. Favourite is pressed into service for Louis Cyphre (Robert de Niro), a saturnine presence who wants to retrieve a mysterious something from a crooner called Johnny Favourite. Louis is the devil, and that something is a soul, and Parker’s New Orleans’ set metaphysical thriller depicts Angel’s investigation as a one way ticket to hell and back.  Skipping some of the more humorous touches of William Hjortsberg’s novel Falling Angel, Angel Heart is a vicious, beautiful, profound yet pulpy cinema experience, with a underlying gravity that’s deeply untypical of the time when it was made.

Jackie Brown 1997 ****

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Those who decry Quentin Tarantino’s later work for its showmanship and pop-cultural trappings should take a look back to the steely control of Jackie Brown, with Pam Grier as the hostess who gets mixes up with crime in an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel. Robert Forester is the cop who falls for brown, and Robert de Niro, Chris Tucker and Bridget Fonda all contribute memorably in minor roles. Tarantino uses skillful edits and a supercool selection of music, but everything is tightly reigned in on Jackie Brown’s situation so much so that’s it’s more of a drama than a thriller, with characters who breathe, charm and kill when they have to.