Awards Season

Who deserves to bring home a gold statue?

By Jim Delmont

 

1917

 

This World War I film is like a dream, a melancholy dream most of the way, but as fascinating and inescapable as dreams can be. It is a tale of two British army corporals sent on a mission to stop a minor offensive against the mighty German lines, which have been fixed in muddy trenches for three years. The officer in charge of the planned offensive doesn’t realize that his 1600 men are heading into a German-planned ambush. The corporals convey a written order from a general to cancel the offensive and one of the men, Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman – Lannister from “Game of Thrones”) was chosen because his brother is an officer with the battalion in danger. He chooses as his mate in the task, Corporal Schofield (George Mackay – Bodevan in “Captain Fantastic”). They are both ordinary blokes with accents to match, ordinary soldiers doing their duty. This is definitely not a flag-waving patriotic movie, nor is it in any political way an anti-war movie. It is simply a battlefield story.

 

The action takes place over two days in April, 1917 (ironically, the month the U.S. entered the war on the side of Britain and France). The battle landscape is utterly fantastic in its morbid and grotesque details. Dead men and animals are smeared into the mud, half-buried, over miles of territory. Everywhere there are ruins: buildings, upended tanks, twisted bridges, burned and flattened villages. Through this nightmare landscape the corporals risk their lives every step of the way, but – it being April – here and there they stumble upon the blossoms of cherry trees, a little touch of natural beauty. The unexpected happens: a German biplane is shot down by British aviators and crashes near them; a young French woman is found, without food or milk for a baby that may not be hers; each man suffers wounds.

 

Director Sam Mendes, who apparently based the story on tales his grandfather had relayed to him about the war, skips the usual chatty background information on the two men. The story just unrolls with the men as they are in those moments, and the cinematography is seemingly one long take (though it isn’t – there’s a trick to it). In a sense, their mission is also one long take.

 

“1917” avoids stirring emotion until the finale, when it fits. There are echoes of both “Saving Private Ryan” and “Paths of Glory” in this movie, but it has its own personality. Both Chapman and MacKay essay their roles with a steady hand. The corporals are good at self-preservation, but not given to foolish heroics.

 

World War I killed 10 million men in four years and was probably the worst event in European history since the Black Death plague of the 14th Century – and it led to both the Communist and Nazi revolutions, the Great Depression, World War II and the Cold War. It ended a century of relative peace, prosperity, and scientific progress. It was just awful. “1917” has 90% approval from both critics and public on Rotten Tomatoes, was nominated for ten Oscars, and dominated the U.S. box office on its opening weekend. Well worth a visit.

 

THE TWO POPES

 

Also with roughly 90% approval from critics and public on Rotten Tomatoes, and nominated for three Oscars, is the charmer, “The Two Popes,” a mostly fictional tale about a reconciliation between conservative German Pope Benedict (Joseph Ratzinger) and populist-liberal Pope Francis (Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio). The film is based on a play by Anthony McCarten, who did the script - which accounts for the engaging dialogue and intimacy in the basic story line. In 2012, as the story goes, the future Francis wanted to resign as Archbishop of Buenos Aires and Pope Benedict opposed the move. When they met in Rome to discuss the situation, an odd friendship bloomed, as they disagreed, in a pleasant way, about many aspects of the Roman Church’s role in the modern world. Strongly hinted is the notion that Benedict, long something of a villain to progressive forces in the Church, was himself persuaded that Bergoglio had some good ideas whose time may have come. It would be difficult to find a better actor for Francis than Jonathan Pryce, who physically resembles him to a remarkable degree. Pryce, a brilliant performer, has won a Golden Globe for the role and is up for an Oscar. Anthony Hopkins is the crusty Benedict, and he’s up for an Oscar, too - in the supporting category. The film is irresistibly likeable, as the two men graciously parry and thrust verbally, each learning from the other. The Vatican sets (including a full scale replica of the Sistine Chapel, courtesy of Rome’s Cinecitta Studios), are impressive and create a grand mood which is carried into the scenes of Cardinals voting for a new Pope. The pomp and splendor of the Vatican is always fascinating, as are the ancient practices and rituals of the Church, including elections of popes.

 

The back story in “The Two Popes” is shown in flashbacks as Bergoglio blames himself for not being more of an activist, as a young priest, against the cruel reign of the military in Argentina in the 1980s, when thousands of students and others (“the disappeared ones”) were murdered by the regime, which also blundered into a war with Britain over the Falkland Islands, which brought about the regime’s downfall. The Benedict/Francis relationship may never have happened as depicted, and it seems unlikely Benedict would have voted for Francis after he resigned as Pope, but who knows? Two of the finest veteran actors in Britain make this story, something of a metaphor, work. Pope Francis has definitely been more liberal and the film has a few moments of what can only be called propaganda, but overall it is a clever story, superbly acted, and brightly presented in Cesar Charlone’s cinematography. It opens with Bergoglio preaching to the poor in a slum neighborhood of Buenos Aries and ends with him elected Pope. In between, lots of good moments.

 

JUDY

 

Renee Zellweger is up for a ton of best actress awards and has already won a Golden Globe for her depiction of a failing Judy Garland in “Judy.” The year is 1969 and Garland’s career is in a slump as she desperately tries to keep custody of her children from former husband, Sid Luft, who has launched a legal offensive to remove the children – Lorna and Joey, both teens – from the vagabond performing life of their mother. Zellweger has been made up to look like the iconic Judy with her later short haircut and facial tics, and her halting manner of speaking - often with tones of irony or exasperation. She manages this well, but what really works is her uncanny ability to convey attitude, the inner Judy, a mix of anguish and pride, of deep personal doubt, but still capable – with the help of liquor and pills – of confident performance. A towering talent, who had made famous comebacks before, Judy is nevertheless conveying a cry for help. This odd mix, the poignancy of it, made her a favorite with gay men, who flocked to her concerts, offering their hands in white gloves, thrust en masse to the stage. This connection is downsized in the film to a friendship with two gay fans, with whom Judy has late night scrambled eggs in their flat, an experience of a lifetime for them.

 

Judy’s dependence on pills is shown in flashbacks to have begun at MGM when she was a teen performer. Though she wasn’t overweight, she was nearly starved by the studio and put on diet pills that initiated lifelong insomnia, offset by sleeping pills, which also became an addiction. As an adult, Judy added liquor to the mix. Louis B. Mayer is shown in “Judy” as a towering, well-dressed business man with an unctuous voice that carried a hint of menace. A nasty chaperone oversaw Judy’s weight regimen, which once actually included a dinner consisting of soup and a single lettuce leaf. Almost everyone in the English-speaking world (and certainly beyond) has seen Judy singing “Over the Rainbow” in the 1939 classic, “The Wizard of Oz.” Judy then was 16 but looked younger. The song, her voice, the earnest feeling she brought to it, was unforgettable. She became one of the most famous performers on earth, but the weight of fame was heavy, demanding, disrupting at times. Her weakness for new beginnings (five husbands), financial ineptitude (often by her managers and husbands), drinking and pills, wrought havoc. In 1969, her agent booked her into a major London nightclub venue in hope she could recover her equilibrium and financial stability. This is that story.

 

At 49 when filming, Renee Zellweger was almost the same age as the Judy Garland she portrays. This film is based on Peter Quilter’s aptly named play, “End of the Rainbow,” and has the succinct quality of a play, rather than the scattered anecdotal course of a bio. Yet the flashbacks (some with a young Mickey Rooney) fill out a life story, with Darci Shaw playing the young Judy. In London, a shaky Judy, drinking too much, on the phone a lot with Luft, who is keeping the children temporarily so they can attend school normally, knows she needs touring to make the money she needs for custody, but that the touring itself is the main danger in losing custody. Overwrought, she seeks consolation from a fledgling young producer, Mickey Deans, who will become her fifth husband. On stage, she triumphs, but also flops when drunk. The movie moves to a climax over her inability to perform regularly. The final scene is a knockout – and it is pathos rather than bathos because Judy’s situation was that of genuine personal tragedy. Zellweger mixes characterization with impersonation, and brings it off. She creates a great artist who is also an unhappy human being, and she does all her own singing, capturing the tone and range of Garland at that stage in her life. Renee deserves that Oscar.

 

MARRIAGE STORY

 

Director Noah Baumbach has been the king of indies, usually filmed in New York, sometimes with Greta Gerwig, always with a sense of personal intimacy in exploring human relations - with believable dialogue - with some irony, some hope, some disappointment. “Marriage Story” is his masterpiece, loved by critics and audiences alike, earning a tableful of awards and award nominations. In it, Scarlett Johansson plays Nicole, an actress who is divorcing her theater director husband, Charlie (Adam Driver), as she relocates to Los Angeles where she has been offered a TV series. He prefers to stay in New York with the theater company he has laboriously built over the years. The main problem is custody of their eight-year-old son, Henry (played by nine-year-old Azhy Robertson). The movie is an essay on divorce, especially with children. It is heartbreaking and fascinating at the same time, like a car wreck. Both parties earn sympathy from the viewer, but with a tilt toward Charlie in the first hour.

 

Scarlett Johansson was so young when she made a film breakthrough in “The Horse Whisperer,” age 14, that it is hard to believe she is 35. She is still young-looking for her age, but as an actor she has matured, deepened. Adam Driver, a year older, was discovered by the public in the cable series, “Girls,” in 2012, but he has been involved with acting from high school and did a stint at Juillard after a patriotic enlistment in the Marines following 9/11. He is a brilliant actor, which was obvious from his earliest appearances in “Girls.” Here he is working at an Oscar-deserving level and has been nominated, along with Scarlett and Laura Dern, who plays Nicole’s L.A divorce lawyer. The Screen Actors Guild has nominated all three, too.

 

“Marriage Story” is intimate, mostly conversation, with a restrained musical score by Randy Newman. It draws the viewer in close, almost embarrassingly so. Whose side are we on? In the end, both. At first, Nicole and Charlie think they can work things out themselves, then Nicole allows herself to be represented by a cynical, confident divorce lawyer played by Laura Dern. Everything changes. Charlie is suddenly a deer in the legal headlights. He turns to a friend, an easy-going older lawyer beautifully played by Alan Alda, who brings understatement to every line. When he seems too soft to take on Dern’s character, he hires his own shark, nicely essayed by Ray Liotta. Things get nasty.

 

Then the couple meet alone again to see if they could, as originally intended, handle things in a simpler fashion, but a shouting match ensues, in which Charlie breaks down (Driver’s best scene – genuinely moving, in which he has a line, “You were happy, you just decided you were not now.”). In between, there are many domestic scenes with Charlie spending time with Henry and meeting Nicole by necessity, in which old ways sometimes assert themselves in a ritual as simple as she cutting his hair, as she always had. Perhaps show biz people should not marry one another, which seems to be true! Nicole has a career beckoning in TV in L.A., Charlie is quintessential New York City, as much so as Woody Allen. The question looms: even if the marriage is doomed, can the relationship be saved?

 

“Marriage Story” is not without humor: the court-ordered “evaluator” who visits Charlie when Henry is with him is a weird, stiff eccentric. The script has humor, usually ironic, but it simmers with love, too. Baumbach has hit it out of the park this time, as has his main cast. Kudos all around.

Oscar-Level Filmmaking

Scorsese's 'Irishman' reunites director, actors from gangster classics

By Jim Delmont

 

Much celebrated this awards season is Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” a movie that unites the director with actors he used as gangsters in films as far back as 1973 (“Mean Streets”). What a reunion it is! Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel were both in Scorsese’s “Mean Streets, De Niro and Joe Pesci were in “Goodfellas” (1990) and reunited in Scorsese’s “Casino” (1995). All three are in “The Irishman,” along with other Italian-American actors like Bobby Cannavali.  Al Pacino is also in it. A star of all of Francis Coppola’s “Godfather” movies, he had worked with De Niro four times, but never for Scorsese - though both always wanted it.

 

This three and a half hour blockbuster was released to theaters a few weeks before becoming available on Netflix, which made its production possible. The genre of “The Irishman” is not that of the crime movie, nor even the gangster film, but perhaps most accurately, the Godfather genre. “The Godfather” (1972) was released a year before “Mean Streets,” and shot a year before that, but as a big budget production must have been in preparation for a much longer time. “Mean Streets,” a low budget film, was shot on the streets, much of it with a hand-held camera. It would make sense to assume that “The Godfather” was never far from Scorsese’s mind as he crafted “Means Streets” and, later,” “Goodfellas.” In a sense, this is his “Godfather,” complete with Pacino.

 

Like the “Godfather” films, there is a glaze of romanticism about these cruel characters and their peculiar tribal ways, as well as a keen sense of zones of male intimacy and simple codes of deference and status. Dialogue between two gangsters who know each other well, might run to something like this: “Something has to be done. I mean, it just isn’t right.” “No, it isn’t right.” “I mean, you just don’t do that.” “No, you wouldn’t do that.” “Something has to be done.” All lines are delivered low key, almost as though painful to utter, and the feel is intimacy, as in longtime relationships with mutual understanding. Other people are not in that zone. It’s very much a male movie, too, as the mafia must be, with women strictly as accessories.

 

Frankly, no one in the business is better at this style of acting than De Niro, who is utterly natural, simply brilliant, handling his lines throughout - and he is a subservient character throughout. The more superior, yet quieter character is Joe Pesci, retired from acting for decades but back for this encore. The tough little actor who was so menacing in his late forties in “Goodfellas,” is here a gentle and vulnerable old man, though still a crime boss. The scenes between Pesci and De Niro are the best in the film.

 

De Niro, as Frank Sheeran, a mob hitman and minor Teamsters official, narrates the entire story from his old age in a home for the elderly. CGI effects are used to make him look younger (generally they work) and make-up makes him look older (he, Pesci, Scorsese, Keitel and Pacino are all in their seventies). The narrative style provides a sentimentality as the decades slide by, underscored by hit songs of each decade and other nostalgic details. A problem is that De Niro is totally unbelievable as an Irishman, so hopelessly urban Italian are his gestures, voice, looks. Also, he’s about 5’9” and the real Sheeran was a huge Irishman about 6’4.” That he can speak Italian is written off as a result of his WWII combat experience in Italy. Also, the story seems to be mostly fiction, based on ramblings by the real Sheeran in his old age, which were put in a book. So fierce has been the criticism of the book and film that even De Niro had to admit the story is “ours” rather than Sheeran’s. The real Sheeran may never had killed anyone, definitely not Joe Gallo as in the movie, and it is unlikely he had anything to do with the death of Jimmy Hoffa, a main character in the movie. Regarding Hoffa, again an actor just doesn’t fit the role – Pacino, good as he is, simply is not Hoffa, despite the hair-do – he’s too Italian also. Hoffa was a thick-bodied thug, with an Irish face, and he had an edge of intimidation and threat about him.

 

Pesci, as the real mob boss, Russell Bufalino, takes a liking to the young Sheeran and brings him slowly into the mob and the Teamsters. Eventually, Sheeran gets a call from Jimmy Hoffa, the Teamsters racketeer who was hounded by the Kennedy brothers, with a simple question, “I heard you paint houses” (euphemism for splattering blood in executions). After that, Sheeran is Hoffa’s man.

 

Scorsese takes amiable shots at famous people: the mob helped elect JFK, then he turned on them; Sheeran met the oddball David Ferrie (who had false red hair and false eyebrows made of cardboard) during prep for the Bay of Pigs invasion (Ferrie was a suspect in New Orleans DA Jim Garrison’s investigative circus into JFK’s assassination); Nixon pardoned Hoffa as a political ploy.

 

A metaphor carried through the film is the morally suspect one that Sheeran was the good soldier in the Italian campaign, doing killing for his country, and he just carried on that work for Bufalino and Hoffa later. A fascinating scene near the end – and one of the movie’s best – is one between the elderly Sheeran and a young priest taking his lifetime confession and asking if he “feels” remorse. Nope, says Sheeran.

 

As the movie does have something of a documentary feel, truly alarming are the number of genuine murders by the mobs in the 1970s and ‘80s, with the screen providing subtitled dates and brief descriptions of how each was wacked in real life.

 

Besides the Oscar level work of De Niro and Pesci, strong support comes from Stephen Graham, an Englishman who has perfected the Italian-American gangster mode; he played Al Capone in “Boardwalk” and here plays “Tony Pro” Provenzano, an enemy of Hoffa - and from Anna Paquin, as a Sheeran daughter who can’t accept his lifework.

 

What really happened to Jimmy Hoffa in 1975, other than his disappearance and presumed murder, remains a mystery. In all likelihood, Frank Sheeran had nothing to do with it. Also, because this movie is so long, and available on Netflix/TV, many people may watch it in segments, which would not please Martin Scorsese, who may win his second Oscar for it.

Epic Combat, Period.

Sentimental, patriotic film stirs feelings, brings tears

By Jim Delmont

 

“Midway” is reminiscent of the 2001 Pacific War epic, “Pearl Harbor,” but without the two-best-friends-in-love-with-the-same-girl theme (a story line so old it goes back to the silent film era). “Midway” is just a combat movie, period. The fact that it has a mostly no-name cast works to its advantage, providing an almost documentary edge (ironically, famed film director John Ford is shown in one segment filming on Midway Island for his first combat documentary for the U.S. Navy, being strafed by Japanese fighter planes in the process). It is also one of those movies more popular with the public voting on Rotten Tomatoes (92% approval) than with the critics (42% approval). This is the reverse of the recent space thriller, “Ad Astra,” in which the critics warmed to the film at an 84% clip, while the public shied away at 40%. This is probably due to the fact that “Ad Astra” is largely cerebral, contemplative, with most of the dialogue a monologue by one astronaut and with not a lot of action. “Midway” is nothing but action: opening with the Pearl Harbor attack in December, 1941, and moving along to the audacious Jimmy Doolittle carrier-based bombing attack on Tokyo itself in April, 1942 (most of the pilots had to ditch, some captured, some killed, some saved by friendly Chinese), then to the Battle of the Coral Sea in May, a naval stand-off that saved Australia and New Zealand from invasion and was the first check on Japanese expansion, then on to the huge American naval victory in the Midway region in June – a dramatic turning point in the war.

 

Battleships, dominant in World War I and long before that, were by 1940 helplessly vulnerable to air attacks from carriers, as Pearl Harbor made clear. Aircraft carriers were now the faster and more effective warships of the Second World War. Midway was a battle between carriers, four on the Japanese side and three on the American - one of them, the Yorktown, had to be hastily repaired at the Pearl Harbor naval shipyard after major damage in the Coral Sea action.

 

Like some of the recent space adventure movies (“First Man” comes to mind), ”Midway” puts an emphasis on the size, noise and alarming vibrations of war machines. The aircraft carriers are just plain scary – monstrous craft heaving on the ocean - and the various aircraft, mostly dive-bombers, are dangerous, tricky, hard to land, and terrifying when in combat nose dives. A word about CGI – in this movie it is not only necessary, but is brilliantly done. In no way could conventional filming convey the absolute hell of tracer bullets and anti-aircraft explosions, literally filling the screen with an overpowering array of death-dealing color and light. How pilots could fly directly into such a canvas of destruction is a tribute to their courage, discipline and patriotism. Initial dive bomber raids on the Japanese were virtually suicidal for Americans, who peeled off in formation only to be shot to pieces.

 

Crucial to the American victory was the breaking of the Japanese naval codes by American intelligence services, who had been shamed by their failure to anticipate the Japanese carrier attack on Pearl Harbor. Stung by this embarrassment, they went all out to crack codes and anticipate Japanese carrier movements (Patrick Wilson, one of the few well known U.S. actors in the film, plays Edwin Layton, a chief intelligence operative vital to this success). The leading man in the film, playing a naval fighter pilot, is Ed Skrein, a Londoner employing a flawless American accent. He has that gum-chewing, irritating independence of many Americans in war films, but his character, Dick Best, was a real, not a fictional person. The major characters in the movie were all real people, ID’d at the end, as to their various fates. Better known actors play small roles, some merely cameo: Woody Harrelson, on screen a bit longer than the others, as Admiral Chester Nimitz, overall commander; Dennis Quaid as Admiral “Bull” Halsey; and Aaron Eckhart as Commander Jimmy Doolittle. Japanese actor Etsushi Toyokawa plays the famous Japanese Admiral Yamamoto, who is quoted after Pearl Harbor with the famous line; “I fear all  we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” The line has appeared in many movies, and is reputed to have been written in his diaries, though scholars can’t locate it (he was ambushed by U.S. fighter planes while on a mission later in the war). Nevertheless, Yamamato often said the war could not be won.

 

The Japanese are treated with dignity throughout, in many scenes in which they plan action - often disagreeing about tactics - and in all combat scenes. At the end, the film is dedicated to the fighting men of both nations, an unusual note of respect. The private lives of the sailors and pilots is explored minimally, though Best’s wife and daughter figure in a few scenes.

 

Carriers were expensive, decisive in the naval war, and difficult to replace, as were the trained pilots assigned to them. At Midway, caught by surprise while most of their planes were on deck being refitted with new weapons, the Japanese suffered a breath-taking holocaust as all four of their carriers – one a flagship for the Commander – were sunk, along with a heavy cruiser that went down with 700 men. In all, the Japanese suffered over 3,000 killed, ten times the American toll, and a payback in lives equal to American losses at Pearl Harbor. Many skilled pilots could never be replaced. The American carrier, the Yorktown, was so wounded, it eventually had to be scuttled.

 

“Midway” is patriotic and sentimental, but the sentiment, which surely will bring tears to the eyes of many viewers, is due to the visceral knowledge that at the deepest level, human life is at stake and brave men are willing to make that sacrifice, total and final. This is a rare feeling that most civilians never experience, except vicariously, as in viewing a movie.