“The Irishman”

Praying that we see ourselves as God sees us has all the weighty guilt of a confession in “The Irishman”. ” The Irishman” is director Martin Scorsese’s best film to date~ “The Godfather” included. For Robert De Niro, it is a tour de force. De Niro controls the screen. His pain is palpable, and he makes us care about the morally passive Frank Sheehan, the man who quite possibly murdered his friend Jimmy Hoffa. Frank can’t own up to regret. He states facts rather than partaking in free will choices. A few hints are given as to why this may be. Sheeran’s World War II soldiering with its 411 days of combat and his “just following orders experiences” are equated to the relative ease in which he carries out Mob hits. Frank Sheeran is used to just doing what he is told. He fought under General Patton in Italy.

Frank is the Irishman. And he is a Philadelphian, who just seems to have drifted into Italian crime with the Bufalino family. Starting out as a food truck driver in the 1940’s carting beef carcasses to restaurants, he soon befriends the heavies: ” I can deliver you steak, the best.” We see him develop into a loyal enforcer, who sees more than a few threads in how the Mob has woven itself into American events. The Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassination of President Kennedy, and the Jimmy Hoffa’s rise as the head of the Teamsters. The film’s scope is subtilely large, almost epic, in how organized crime makes it mark. Steven Zaillian’s screenplay is close to perfection. Based on Charles Brandt’s book, “I Heard You Paint Houses”, the action and Sheeran’s late attempt at contemplation balance our feelings of horror and judgement.

Likewise, the structure of this cinematic wonder is perfection. We first see De Niro, our bodyguard and hit man, in a fancy, Catholic facility for the aged. The score belts out ” In The Still Of The Night”. It is a grand opening for reflection. The camera pans the holy statues, the card games, the wheel chairs. De Niro’s monologue begins..” When I was young, just a working stiff..I started “painting houses myself”, a euphemism for wiping people out. He sets up his tawdry tale of actions with a kind of pilgrimage to a Detroit wedding ~ the wedding of his attorney’s daughter. The same lawyer is Wm. E. Bufalino ( Ray Romano) who saved him from a slew of crimes. In fact, thirteen grand jury investigations were held with no indictments.

Cool, episodic flashbacks are interspersed during the trip-ticked car ride. The pace is sublime. The period details wonderful. Who doesn’t remember the Howard Johnson orange and light blue interiors and the ice cream flavors on the wall?! Who doesn’t remember Lum’s hot dogs steamed in beer? The white walls of a shiny, black Hudson glide by ; guns are tossed nonchalantly into a river; Frank takes his family bowling , and they play miniature golf. ” Remember, You Belong To Me” is in the background. A fleet of taxis are exploded.

Robbie Robertson comprised the score. The chosen lyrics match the period and the existential place of the main characters. Al Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa is rife with unique character traits and intense opinions. We learn that Hoffa loved ice cream,and that he never drank. He believed in dressing for the occasion and hated when anyone was late for an appointment. Hoffa’s ” You can’t trust millionaires kids.” refers to Robert Kennedy’s inquest of the mob going to the Teamsters for money and using pension funds to get it. Pacino gives a larger than life performance. His ” I ‘m going to jail because of you!” is a line delivered in lieu of a dozen jack hammers. There are some amazing Pacino scenes where an ice cream parlor’s tv screen announces the death of JFK. He is both respectful and certain that the Teamster’s half- mast flag will be returned to the top of its flagpole. Al Pacino’s Hoffa knows how ” to put on a show!”

There is humor interspersed with all the darkness. Hoffa bemoaning that all the Italians are named ‘Tony” is only one example. Prison bocce ball played in wheel chairs, another. There is a back-seat, fish-smell scene that will become a classic in every film school. The bread and grape juice Communion with Russell Bufalino and Frank’s selecting of his own casket after the salesman asks, ” If he sees anything that he likes” are perfection in symbol and resignation. Scorsese has a masterpiece here; and Joe Pesci, Frank’s godfather, has yet to be mentioned! Pesci is a powerhouse of silence. The antithesis of Pacino’s Hoffa, who never stops talking. Pesci is the perfect foil. He is like the devil when he utters to Frank, ” How strong I made you.”

See Martin Scorsese’s film on the big screen with an audience around you. De Niro has left the door open for both daughter Peggy and for you.

“Ford vs. Ferrari”

Two former Hoosiers, executive producer Kevin Halloran and screenwriter Jason Keller help to make a true car-racing epic fire-up the screen. Plus, “Ford and Ferrari” has an over-arching theme of friendship and admiration that makes the heart soar along with the cars. And Oscar-worthy performances by Christian Bale and Matt Damon are reasons enough to see this film on the big screen! Tracy Letts as the grandiose Henry Ford II and Caitriona Balfe as Ken Miles’ savvy wife are equally remarkable in supporting roles. The film is a “don’t miss”.

High whines and racing sounds set the pace for an re-enactment of the French 1966 Le Mans race where corporate intrigue, mechanical perfection, and individual decision-making keep the wheels spinning until they don’t.

The plot is emotionally resonant. Ken Miles (Bales) is the British mechanic, who marries the girl who likes the smell of wet gasoline. Their son Peter (Noah Jupe) is just as enthusiastic in his support. Miles is centered (even though he talks to his cars), driven to drive, and honorable. Carroll Shelby (Damon), is the Texan car designer, who admires him. Shelby has wit, swagger, and a sense of even play ( though he cops a couple Italian stop watches). All in a matter of fun, Shelby also likes to mess with the psyches of the Italian pit crew.

The photography with its reckless spins, u-turns , 7000 rpms, and rainy night maneuvering is worthy of a 100 million dollar production. Director James Manfold keeps his road-racing champions dear. If Ken is ” difficult” he also embodies an artistry not often celebrated: the genius mechanic cum intrepid racer. One terrific scene has him alone in the garage tinkering. As Miles listens to a race, he innumerates every part failure and mechanical wrong that transpires before the car is even pulled off the track. In the midst of his accounting, his wife enters his sanctuary with a picnic basket dinner. They dance to lyrics “you are mine”. Such an understanding and cohesive couple has not graced the screen in awhile. Another quiet moment is when Miles tracks the race on his son, Peter’s course diagram. These personal interludes work well for character development as they balance the pace of life on and off the race track.

In France, excitement and adrenalin flow as the drivers sprint to their cars and the French tri-color goes down. One handsome Ferrari driver gives the “ smoldering, European stare” and the American “can do” spirit is ratcheted up a notch. There is a little “trash talking” through side windows and plenty of torque. There is American ingenuity in the idea of switching out the brake system. A part is a part, and it is not against the rules Shelby maintains. There is more competition than the Enzo Ferrari team, however. The Ford Motor boardroom is full of powerful egos trying to make their mark.

The sound track tempo is grand. The human psychology resplendent.

“ The Miseducation Of Bindu”

The 2019 Heartland International Film Festival’s premiere of “ The Miseducation Of Bindu” was the fastest sell-out in Heartland’s history. A comp ticket from a college friend, who also happens to be the producer’s ( Ed Timpe ) mother set me up for a prime seat. Her daughter-in-law, Prarthana Mohan, is the director and, along with Kay Tuxford, co-writer. There is reason to be proud.

The film’s premise has a bright, but home-schooled and protected 15 year-old “drowning in every possible way” as she attempts to negotiate the vagaries of high school, U.S.A. style.

Barbarous assaults of racial taunts, gossip and slander combine with shaving cream and coin-stack pranks, lunchroom-tripping, and pool-pushing to keep the innocent Bindu painfully treading water. Actress Megan Suri is stunning as she brings her Indian culture to the forefront. Bollywood dancing and spice heavy food prep are lauded; her protective mother ( Priyanka Bose), not so much. Suri is in every scene, but one. Her eyes and head shots are memorable for both their innocence and their determination.

Bindu has a plan: she will test out of high school. This is possible if she can come up with the $57.00 fee for the Spanish exam by the end of the school day. Sam ( Gordon Winarick ) and Trenton ( Logan Scholfield) are the film’s bullies. Peter ( Phillip Labes ) is her stalwart friend, whom she protects with her own reputation in my favorite scene.

The serious topic of making a place for oneself in the world is replete with chuckles and some nostalgia for a simpler time, though there were always “Holly the Heads” ( Hannah Alline ) in our lives. Kudos, also, to David Arquette who plays a step-dad who really tries. Tonight, at Newfields catch “The Miseducation Of Bindu”. Many will learn what today’s high schoolers deal with without a principal’s mandate for inclusive, building-culture oversight. Timely, and a microcosm for us in this era.

“ The Nightingale”

“The Nightingale” is set in early 19th century Australia. Our protagonist, Clare, ( Aisling Franciosi ) is a Irish convict who is trying to get released from a penal colony where she lives with her loving husband , Aiden, ( Michael Sheasby ) and three-month-old daughter. The British officer in charge ( Sam Claflin) rapes her in front of her husband, shoots him, and tells his sergeant to silence the child. When the underling can’t, he throws the baby against a wall. Clare somehow survives the rifle butt to her head, swaddles her dead child and carries her through the colony. Clare calls on friends to place the baby in her father’s arms and bury both under a designated tree. Then, Clare is off to seek revenge.

Brutal, yes. But brutality in director and screenwriter Jennifer Kent’s hand is different from the Quentin Tarantino variety. Violence in “The Nightingale” is emotional. It is not violence for violence’s sake, nor is it being made fun of. Unlike a pornography expunger collecting his own cache of filth, Kent documents historical, sadistic viciousness rather than make fun of a culture that seems to vicariously enjoy viewing it.

On Clare’s revenge quest, vivid dream sequences swirl around her. Through crazed and in shock , she does take her friend’s advice and hires a black tracker, Billy, ( Baykali Ganambarr) to lead the way through the aboriginal forrest. The dripping fern and rain sounds are glorious, the mud and leeches less so. The high river, the lack of food and its procurement add adventurous scenes while bonding Billy and Claire as two oppressed souls: blackbird and nightingale.

Billy calls himself ” Blackbird” and he tells us that he doesn’t wish to be a white devil. The English have killed off most of his tribe. Billy is astounded by Claire’s own violence. When she stabs and pummels the ensign who killed her daughter, Billy turns his back on her. ” What did he do to you to turn you into a mad devil? ” More dream sequences follow and Billy stays. In one sweet scene, he offers a recipe for paste to dry-up Claire’s painfully milk-full breasts. ” None of your hocus-pokus on me” is her initial retort, but soon smokey ceremonies prove Billy’s ancient wisdom.

Though much of the film consists of 1700 style revenge, the themes of racism, colonial power, and freedom ring true. Some normal acts of kindness show when an elderly couple see Claire dazed and seemingly alone on the road. ” You look a fright. Come for a wash and a feed” , the man says. He later asks Billy to get up from the floor and eat at the table with them. Billy’s appreciation and tearful rage of ” This is my country” is understated acting at its best.

Expect raw emotional experience, and the most callous British officer ever depicted.

“Luce”

The film “Luce” highlights what a provocative tale and fine acting can do. Luce Edgars is the central mystery. He is a high school stand-out. The soon-to-be valedictorian is also cagey and at times too smart for his own good. Kelvin Harrison, Jr. is marvelous in this role. Both like Lucifer and a lucent angel.

His white , adoptive parents ( Naomi Watts and Tim Roth ) have nurtured the seven-year-old former Eritrean child soldier to succeed ~U.S. middle-class-style. He partakes in athletics, debate, and leadership positions. He is the principal’s “poster child”. When an intuitive and stern teacher, Mrs. Harriet Wilson, ( beautifully rendered by Octavia Spencer) sees an alarmingly violent tone in one of Luce’s assignments, she calls Luce’s parents, but not before she has checked his locker. Illegal fireworks are found, not an AK-47. Still the musical score heightens the tension. Mrs. Wilson has previously found weed in Luce’s friend DeShaun’s locker and he has lost his scholarship. Confrontations ensue that suck the air out of every room your mind may enter.

The history and government teacher is savvy to Luce’s mind games and subtle threats. Spencer does not over act here. She is a marvel of restraint even if her language slips in passionate caring. She tells his parents: “He can’t fuck this up. Talk to him.”

Watts and Roth are superb, too, in their back and forth dance with their son’s guilt. Did he orchestrate the vandalizing of his teacher’s home? We know he set-up his Asian girlfriend to retract her previous statements. There are numbing scenes of manipulation by Luce around shared lockers; Wilson’s mentally ill sister, Rosemary; and a bouquet of flowers. When Spencer’s Harriet poured a stiff drink, I wanted one, too. She is this film’s tragic figure~so like our times.

Naomi Watts’ Amy is perfect as the liberal parent, who wanted to use her infertility to do something praiseworthy. Tim Roth’s Peter delivers his “ missed babyhood and diapers” speech to deepen the psychological fray. Amy does all the wrong things out of fear: “ I won’t risk the trust we built”, she intones. One of the most chill-producing events was to hear how Amy could not forget the pet goldfish that Luce threw across the room like deli-meat. This mom will lie for her child, and ironically his knowing this may save him. The fireworks have been both symbolically and literally hidden!

Kelvin Harrison,Jr. is impressive as Luce. We want him to be perfect, but he isn’t. Has America put him in a box where he can’t breathe? When he says, “ I haven’t been my best self”, we cringe at his understatement. Questions like “ Do you hurt people to prove a point?” surface. In his valedictory speech, Luce tells us that he was renamed because his adoptive mother could not pronounce his African name. In America, resilience is a virtue, too. As a “ war zone pull-out”, is Luce allowed to define himself ? When Luce asks his teacher “ What if you are what I need protected from?, we understand. Is reading and championing Frantz Fanon’s violence scary from a revolutionary stand point?

When Luce tells Mrs. Wilson , “ I’m sorry if I scare you, I just hope you know me better than that”, is he taunting or conforming? Are both equally bad? It will depend on who you think Luce is. What is behind the smile? What is behind the tears? Viewers only know that Luce gets a second chance, and that Mrs. Wilson may not. A stunner of a film.

“Where’d You Go, Bernadette?”

The photography of ice bergs in Antarctica and Cate Blanchet may be the only reasons to see the Maria Semple novel put to screen. Likewise, the movie was enjoyable only in that it reminded me of the pleasure I had in reading ” Where’d You Go, Bernadette.” Director Richard Linklater missed most of the social satire that I found “laugh out loud” funny in the book. Some of this may have been because much of the novel entails memos, e-mails, blog entries, and blue-tooth phone conversations. These are hard to incorporate with a narrator daughter and the use of flashbacks. Present and past get emotionally distorted.

Blanchet is a cooler batty than the Bernadette Fox of the novel. Yet, the subjects of women adrift in the pressures of family and workplace are touched, as is the need for creative endeavors. Her “genius grant” 20 mile house has been demolished for a parking lot. This event has kicked her to the curb.

Bernadette is not a people person. Having once been an esteemed, prize-winning architect, we now find her housed in an unkempt Victorian where she breaks stained-glass windows to rescue the family lab ( cutely, named Ice Cream) from a stuck closet. She cuts their carpet in star-shaped-flaps and staples them to see if the floor is wet from the constantly dripping ceiling. She is an eccentric insomniac. She pours all her depression meds. in a jar like jelly beans for the taking. “Colorful, but hard to remember what is what!” Her psychiatrist, hired by Bernadette’s husband ( Billy Crudup ), tries a psychological intervention once it appears that Bernadette has enabled a scammer in stealing her identity. ” We’d like to present you with the reality of your situation”, she announces. Bernadette’s former colleague, Paul, ( Laurence Fishburne ) does a much better job at quelling Bernadette’s ” irrational chain of anxiety”, he listens.

Blanchet is fun to watch in her marabis with turquoise toes and her Hermès scarves. She naturally absorbs Bernadette’s wit in berating her neighbor , Audrey, ( Kirsten Wiig ) for using the word ” connectitude”. ” Audrey went to a grad school that ” thinks outside the dictionary”.

Bernadette’s identity crisis may begin with a literal mud slide of instability, but her daughter Bee ( Emma Nelson ) does not drift, as her husband does in the book. Daughter and husband present Bernadette with the namesake locket of her visionary saint, and her world is no longer mad.

“Sword of Trust”

Fans of the British television series ” The Detectorists” ( 2014) will love Director Lynn Shelton’s comedy ” Sword of Trust”. Wry, understated humor meshes with life’s little veracities.

Marc Maron plays Mel, a Jewish pawnshop owner in small town Alabama. Along with his slow-to-move helpmate Nathanial ( Jon Bass ), Mel parlays a living our of silver-tongued guitars and worn cowboy boots. When a lesbian couple ( one a former Israeli soldier) presents a Civil War sword with ” prover” documentation that the Confederates won the War, Mel pipes up with ” What do you think this is an Antique Road Show for racists”!

Word travels fast while cash register trays are drying out: “a prover-item” is for sale. ” Delta Pawn” and this unlikely foursome are accosted by some crazy, dangerous sword seekers, one who believes that the state of New Mexico does not count because it ,well , has ” Mexico” in it. Strumming music is apt, as it was in “Deliverance”.

” Sword of Trust” is low-budget fun. We slowly learn of our cast’s dreams and histories. Cynthia ( Jillian Bell ) hopes to use her split of the take for an “Escape Room” enterprise, sort of like the locked, padded van they find themselves in, except people pay for the fun of trying to get out. Mary ( Michaela Watkins) enjoys negotiating for Cynthia as her warrior in kind. Conspiracy theorists join cult members, and flat-earthed theories are even broached by Nathaniel. Toby Huss as ” Hog Jacks” stills one’s heart.

“Muscle Shoals” tee-shirts, tablecloth arguments, puppet-dancer and pie-maker epithets add to the fun. One scene mimics the “who’s on first” routine of Abbott and Costello.

Mel’s old-drugged-out flame, Deidre, ( Lynn Shelton , also director ) sells her on-the-spot poems when Mel will not pawn her rings. The warm tussle of their exchange from a 15 year-free druggy to a never-quite-beat-it user is perfect. The film’s ending where Mel leaves a sack of groceries on her door step is warmer still.