A Mafia goon reflects on his life working for mob bosses and Jimmy Hoffa
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring Robert de Niro, Joe Pesci, and Al Pacino
Review by Jon Kissel
Martin Scorsese’s 2019 has found the hall-of-fame director in the center of two of the biggest concerns in the cinematic world. His thoughtful and high-minded discourse about where superhero movies fall in the film landscape endeared him to every cinephile concerned about monopoly power and the worrying trend of anonymous fans sticking up for multi-billion corporations. His choice to make his latest film with Netflix put him on the opposite side of the purists, though it’s hard to imagine a studio financing a $160 million, 209 minute epic that’s far away from the perversely enticing boisterousness of Scorsese’s Goodfellas or Wolf of Wall Street. A still-vital director wading into so many corners of the cultural landscape makes Scorsese a worthy spokesman for American film, especially when he has the goods to back up his talk. The Irishman places Scorsese as the driving force behind one of 2019’s best films, though anytime he makes something new, it’s likely to be in that conversation. What’s surprising is how viciously fanboys have attacked Scorsese’s eminently fair arguments. What’s unsurprising is that one of the medium’s best creators has once again made a masterpiece.
The Mercury Seven got their epic in The Right Stuff and so did the crew of Apollo 13, and now Neil Armstrong gets his cinematic apotheosis in Damien Chazelle’s First Man, a Kubrickian masterwork from a director who’s said all he has to say about jazz. Finding fertile new ground in the space race, Chazelle instills his historic representations with the flintiness of his Whiplash characters, portraying Armstrong as a difficult man who, in his difficulty, may have been the only person capable of emerging from the trying 1960’s intact. Utilizing you-are-there filmmaking and the best of Ryan Gosling’s oft-internal performances, First Man signifies Chazelle’s emergence as a singular auteur in total control of his art.
To a greater or lesser extent, all of Quentin Tarantino’s movies have been partly about movies, or his life as viewed through the prism of movies. Reservoir Dogs is about acting and performance, and Inglourious Basterds is about film being the literal weapon that topples fascism. His characters talk about movies, and model themselves after other fictional characters. Despite Tarantino’s obsession with cinema, none of his work has featured characters who actively work in the movie business, with the odd exception of Basterds’ Goebbels. Tarantino’s filmography, now supposedly with only one film left to go, would feel incomplete if he didn’t put aside his criminal/assassin/historical surrogates and just make a movie about actors already. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, a title befitting a man constantly making references and allusions to days of cinema past, sees Tarantino do exactly that as he indulges in a nostalgic journey into mindless TV serials and B-movies filmed on dingy backlots. Despite functioning as a potentially infantile time travel device into a hazy period Tarantino missed out on, the film’s low-stakes setting allows him to do what he does best without having to worry about outbursts of violence, resulting in perhaps in his most mature and meaningful film.
A multi-part oral history of mid-20th century Mississippi, Dee Rees’ Mudbound feels familiar and unique at the same time. Black people toiling under the thumb of Jim Crow has been visited in films like Mississippi Burning, The Butler, Loving, The Help, and plenty of others. These kinds of stories often have the pure criminality of the KKK lurking around the corner, with virulent racists crafting a picture of evil so palpable that it’s almost manipulative. When there isn’t a family of noble sufferers weathering this storm, there’s benevolent white people around to serve as middle men or in contrast to the cross-burners, like these white people are ok and in no way complicit. Mudbound has some of those tropes, but it also holds them at arm’s length and broadens the tapestry. Rees is engaging with previous kinds of these stories, often to Mudbound’s detriment, but by including so many perspectives amongst the two central families, she’s pushing deeper than films like this usually go.
JUST SOME IDIOTS GIVING SURPRISINGLY AVERAGE MOVIE REVIEWS.
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