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Indie Focus: Martin Scorsese surveys lifetimes in ‘The Irishman’

Hello! I’m Mark Olsen. Welcome to another edition of your regular field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.

The UCLA Film and Television Archive, Netflix and the International Documentary Assn. are presenting a celebration of Julia Reichert’s 50 years of documentary filmmaking. The series spotlights her recent “American Factory,” co-directed with Steven Bognar, with Reichert in person. Running through Nov. 17, the program will also include her 2006 film “A Lion in the House,” her 1971 film “Growing Up Female” and more.

This weekend concludes the inaugural run of programming at the new Amanda Theater as the home of the Array 360 series. On Friday there will be a screening of Djibril Diop Mambéty’s 1992 film “Hyenas,” followed by Mati Diop’s “Atlantics,” which won the Grand Prix award earlier this year at Cannes. Then on Saturday there will be a screening of Agnès Varda’s 1956 debut feature “La Pointe Courte” followed by her final film, “Varda by Agnès.”

The L.A. Times will be hosting a roundtable conversation on costume design at the Skirball Cultural Center on Nov. 10. The talk will be moderated by Deputy Managing Editor Julia Turner, with scheduled guests Ruth E. Carter for “Dolemite Is My Name,” Julian Day for “Rocketman,” Arianne Phillips for “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood,” Sandy Powell for “The Irishman,” Paul Tazewell for “Harriet” and Jany Temime for “Judy.” For more information, go to events.latimes.com.

Jesse Plemons, Ray Romano, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in “The Irishman.”
Jesse Plemons, Ray Romano, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in “The Irishman.”
(Netflix)
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‘The Irishman’

Directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino, “The Irishman” catches all of them in a ruminative, reflective mood looking back over decades. The movie tells the story of Frank Sheeran (De Niro) as he makes his way up through the worlds of organized crime, with Pesci as an East Coast mob boss, and of organized labor, with Pacino as doomed union leader Jimmy Hoffa.

In his review for The Times, Kenneth Turan hailed the film as a “landmark” and wrote that, “astonishingly, instead of business as usual, ‘The Irishman’ is a revelation, as intoxicating a film as the year has seen, allowing Scorsese to use his expected mastery of all elements of filmmaking to ends we did not see coming. Instead of the high-energy, borderline celebratory atmosphere that clung to films like ‘Goodfellas’ and ‘Casino,’ this is an elegiac, brooding gangster film that casts a mournful spell, that intentionally drains its gangland doings of glamour just as Rodrigo Prieto’s exceptional cinematography gradually drains the color out of its look.”

The Times’ Jeffrey Fleishman spoke to Scorsese about returning again to a story of gangsters. “The reason it took so long was that I wasn’t going to go back to that world and do that again,” said Scorsese. “I wasn’t going to until I found a certain piece of myself about it. What that is I couldn’t tell you. It has to do with time, change in life, family, children. All of this. Somehow, we got seasoned in a way. Myself, maybe Bob [De Niro] too. After all the fury and all the struggle in life, ultimately it comes down to the leaving of it. It’s learning to die.”

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For Time, Stephanie Zacharek wrote, “For the first two and a half hours of its three-and-a-half-hour runtime, ‘The Irishman’ is clever and entertaining, to the point where you may think that’s all it’s going to be. But its last half-hour is deeply moving in a way that creeps up on you, and it’s then that you see what Scorsese was working toward all along: A mini-history of late-20th century America as filtered through the eyes of a smalltime guy who needs and wants to believe in his own importance and capacity for decency — and who can’t see, though Scorsese can, that it’s the end of a life that tells the truth about the middle.”

At rogerebert.com, Matt Zoller Seitz noted, “the net effect is more unsettling and melancholia-inducing than you might have expected. Frank’s storytelling aligns him with some of the most mesmerizing unreliable narrators in Scorsese’s voice-over-heavy career. It’s in the relationship between what the film shows us and what Frank tells us — as well as the relationship between the deadpan comedy that comprises probably 95% of the movie’s 209-minute running time and the intrigue and violence that fills out the rest — that Scorsese’s preoccupations seem to reside.”

“Harriet” director Kasi Lemmons, left, and star Cynthia Erivo, right, photographed in Los Angeles on Sept. 12.
“Harriet” director Kasi Lemmons, left, and star Cynthia Erivo, right, photographed in Los Angeles on Sept. 12.
(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

‘Harriet’

Directed and co-written by Kasi Lemmons, “Harriet” tells the story of Harriet Tubman as she escapes from slavery and transforms into an abolitionist hero, leading others to freedom via the Underground Railroad. Cynthia Erivo brings the title role to life in an exciting, energizing performance.

In his review for The Times, Kenneth Turan called it “an important and involving event because a mainstream, traditional film on this woman is way past long overdue.” He said of Erivo’s performance: “In work that emphasizes the unstoppable power of a persuasive performance, Erivo not only convincingly conveys the strength of the celebrated abolitionist’s fierce personality, she creates her as a realistic, multi-sided character, a complex woman of formidable self-belief and not any kind of plaster saint.”

For our entertainment podcast “The Reel,” I spoke to Lemmons about what it meant to bring Tubman’s story to the screen. “We still have a lot of work to do in terms of women represented in movies. And this is a black woman in a period piece,” she said. “We’ve been allowed access to certain heroes, but we need access to Harriet, because she’s such a tremendous hero. We as women, we need those heroes. As African Americans we need those heroes — and as Americans, frankly.”

For Vanity Fair, K. Austin Collins wrote, “It doesn’t have the polish or prestige of your typical Oscar movie; it’s less impressive than, say, the Oscar winner ’12 Years a Slave,’ a film that anxiously trawls the lines between suffocating gorgeousness and brutish violence… But there’s a tension at work in ‘Harriet’ that’s missing from other, ‘better’ movies. Sometimes, Lemmons — who directed the wonderfully spectral Southern gothic ‘Eve’s Bayou’ — hits you with a curious bit of framing or a propulsive bit of energy, visions of a world that’s as alive with danger as it is with spiritual possibility. It’s also a vaster and in many ways wilder film than it will get credit for, a movie that leans into the excitement of Tubman’s mission so energetically it almost morphs into a heist picture, dredging up odd romantic and religious energies along the way.”

For The Wrap, Monica Castillo wrote that “Lemmons’ ‘Harriet’ should have been a heroic return to the world stage. Instead, it’s a disappointingly standard biopic, one whose technical flaws and paint-by-numbers clichés threaten to overshadow its subject’s compelling story.”

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For The New Yorker, Richard Brody countered, “The effect of this wide-ranging and deep-delving approach to an apparently straightforward and conventional narrative is gloriously paradoxical: far from dispersing the movie’s dramatic arc and energies, it focusses them. Far from diminishing its heroine’s ardent efforts, it magnifies them. In the process, the movie relates Tubman’s story, and the story of her times, with the exalted power of secular scripture.”

Quentin Dolmaire, Tom Mercier and Louise Chevillotte in the movie “Synonyms.”
Quentin Dolmaire, Tom Mercier and Louise Chevillotte in the movie “Synonyms.”
(Kino Lorber)

‘Synonyms’

Directed and co-written by the Israeli filmmaker Nadav Lapid, “Synonyms” won the top prize at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival. The movie tells the story of a young man (Tom Mercier) newly arrived in Paris and struggling to fit into a place and culture that are not his own.

In his review for The Times, Justin Chang — who was a member of the jury at the festival in Berlin — called the film “a searing, maddening, explosively brainy movie about the mutability and immutability of the self that, appropriately enough, never stops changing shape.”

For the New York Times, Manohla Dargis called it “furious, brilliant, exhausting” and said “Lapid isn’t afraid of obvious situations, bold gestures and didactic metaphors, all of which he deploys in a coming-into-consciousness tale of violence and memory, being and belonging.”

For Vulture, Bilge Ebiri wrote, “All its ellipses and repetitions, its shifts in style and tone, its raw fascination with bodies and movement, circle around this sense of cognitive, corporeal entrapment. Our sense of being in the world is life’s most infernal chicken-and-egg question. What came first, the person or the persona?”

Email me if you have questions, comments or suggestions, and follow me on Twitter: @IndieFocus.


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