Towards the end of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990), mobster-turned-informant Henry Hill is confronted with the following statement from a contemptuous defence attorney in court: “People call them rats because a rat will do anything to survive. Isn’t that right, Mr Hill?” In Scorsese’s film, the viewer follows Hill across several decades of involvement with an Italian-American crime syndicate, up to the point that various complications of his Mafia career collide in a disastrous fashion. Convinced that he and his family are marked for certain death, Hill eventually decides to become an informant for the FBI, testifying against his former friends and then entering the federal Witness Protection Program.
“Rats” and informant characters are not uncommon in crime movies, though in cases where they may be the protagonist you will often find them serving the part of a double agent or mole. They may be an undercover FBI employee infiltrating the mob, such as in Mike Newell’s Donnie Brasco (1997). In Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs (2002), and Scorsese’s subsequent American remake The Departed (2006), you even have informants on both sides of the law: an undercover cop, deep in the criminal underworld, trying to smoke out a mob mole lurking in the police department.
In mob movies where the lead eventually turns informant after some pressure, this will traditionally happen in the third act after a few hours of transgressive highs of the lifestyle leading to destructive lows. A rarer commodity is a film mostly set after the mobster’s choice has been made to spill the beans. After all, the derogatory term “rat” is used to denote that such a person is the lowest of the low in an environment that may posit the notion of honour among thieves. The perceived wisdom may be that audiences won’t want to follow such a character for a whole film; one that would, by its very nature, skimp on some of the glamour and success Mafia tales usually show before things go terribly wrong. But that is exactly what revered Italian filmmaker Marco Bellocchio has made with his subversive spin on the mob movie, The Traitor, in which the title character heads down the informant path within the opening half-hour…
Full feature for the Curzon Blog
Until going up the jungle in The Lost City of Z (2016) and now into deep space with Ad Astra, the films of American director James Gray – from Little Odessa (1994) to Two Lovers (2008) – all told stories of New York, with many focusing on immigrant families. His 2013 ode to classical melodrama, The Immigrant, was the culmination of that interest.
Set in 1921, it sees Polish immigrant Ewa (Marion Cotillard) tricked into a life of Manhattan burlesque and prostitution as she tries to fund the release of her ill sister, who has been confined to Ellis Island. She also finds herself caught in a toxic love triangle between Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), the charmer pimp who got her there, and his chivalrous magician cousin, Emil (Jeremy Renner).
Featuring contenders for Cotillard and Renner’s career-best performances, reliably magnetic work from Phoenix, and cinematography from Darius Khondji that simultaneously evokes 19th-century painting, silent cinema and the 70s highpoints of Godfather cinematographer Gordon Willis, The Immigrant is a beautiful and devastating slow-burn drama. Its closing act, particularly the lingering final shot, must count among the finest American filmmaking of this decade.
So, why was the film never released in the UK?
Full feature for the BFI
In the course of making Shoah, an epic nine-and-a-half-hour documentary on the Holocaust, French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann shot over 350 hours of interviews with witnesses, survivors, and perpetrators, alongside footage of key locations in the present day. Released in 1985, Shoah is credited with helping to awaken the public to the horrors of the Holocaust. But prior to that, Israeli editor Ziva Postec spent nearly six years painstakingly poring over those 350 hours to assemble the vital document we have today, only for her role in the production to be downplayed by Lanzmann and subsequent supporting material.
Ziva Postec. The Editor Behind the Film Shoah, from Canadian filmmaker Catherine Hébert, explores what would drive someone to devote so many years of their life to such a grueling undertaking, and at what cost. It’s also a warm portrait of a fascinating life beyond her definitive cinematic achievement, one filled with leaps of faith, tragedy, obsession, and working relationships with some of the great artists of the time, including Alain Resnais and Orson Welles. I had a chat with Hébert after the film’s UK premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival…
Full interview for Hyperallergic
2019 marked my seventh trip to the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Something I’ve always appreciated about its commitment to new British cinema – and not just through its Michael Powell Award competition – is that it provides a platform for more idiosyncratic examples of independent British cinema that may struggle to get a launch at the grander London Film Festival. And while it’s faced competition from the rising Glasgow Film Festival for specifically Scotland-focused fiction and nonfiction, Edinburgh has always launched interesting fare from across the increasingly divided United Kingdom – from Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio (2012) to Matt Palmer’s Calibre (2018), to name but two recent personal favourites.
That said, not every year can be a vintage one when you take a chance on lots of relatively unproven talent, and my experience of this year’s British line-up was that while the pick-ups from overseas A-list festivals were mostly solid to very good (the Toronto-premiering British folk horror Gwen, now opening in UK cinemas, stood tall), the festival’s own finds were underwhelming so far as the fiction films went…
Full feature for Sight & Sound
The Edinburgh International Film Festival, the world’s longest continuously-running film festival and now in its 73rd year, runs between 19 and 30 June. It opens with the European premiere of Boyz in the Wood (2019), which is not a tribute to the late John Singleton but rather a dark, folk horror-influenced comedy set in the Scottish Highlands, from writer-director Ninian Doff. The world premiere of Mrs. Lowry & Son (2019) closes the festival: Adrian Noble’s light-hearted biopic of L.S. Lowry (Timothy Spall) portrays the painter long before he was established as one of the 20th century’s greatest artists, devoted to but frustrated with his bitter mother, Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave).
Beyond the bookend galas, there are many premieres (including world-first screenings of 18 features), discoveries and retrospectives of note. Here are 10 highlights from the packed programme…
Full feature for the BFI
Before launching its full programme, the 72nd Edinburgh International Film Festival announced the films in the lineup with notable Scottish connections. It’s standard practice for this festival, presumably tied to obligations to sponsors such as Creative Scotland, to give the slate of local productions a profile-boost before breaking out the international big guns.
Of late, this tease has proved more foreboding than enticing. With a few exceptions (such as Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio), the quality of British features receiving their world premiere at the festival in recent years has been especially patchy, and a number of the particularly dire ones have, in my experience, been those with a local connection. Romantic comedy Scottish Mussel (2015) may still be the worst feature I’ve seen at any film festival.
This year’s Scots-focused preview looked more promising, however, both for the world premieres as well as titles accruing buzz from festivals abroad. Despite the odd dud, the quality, variety and, in some cases, ambition of the features under the broad banner of Scottish filmmaking proved reflective of the state of this year’s programme as a whole…
Full feature for Sight & Sound
Now in its 72nd instalment, the Edinburgh International Film Festival is the world’s longest continuously-running film festival. This year’s edition opens with the UK premiere of Marc Turtletaub’s jigsaw drama Puzzle, starring Kelly Macdonald and Irrfan Khan. The festival later closes with the UK premiere of Swimming with Men, a British comedy from director Oliver Parker, starring Rob Brydon, Jim Carter, Daniel Mays and Adeel Akhtar.
Beyond the galas, there are many premieres, discoveries and retrospectives of note. Here are 10 highlights from the big programme, with the festival running from 20 June to 1 July…
Full feature for the BFI
The last few years have seen a noticeable rise in Iranian cinema’s international profile, both through relatively mainstream breakthrough success for films like the Oscar-winning A Separation and thanks to publicised restrictions on the country’s filmmakers, most notably the house arrest of director Jafar Panahi, as documented in 2011’s This Is Not a Film. With artistic expression so heavily monitored, many of the country’s best have chosen to depart and make films elsewhere, Abbas Kiarostami (Close-Up, Taste of Cherry) among them, whose most recent films – Certified Copy and Like Someone in Love – have been part financed in France and shot in Italy and Japan.
Mania Akbari is another filmmaker who has chosen to leave her homeland to continue her work, in her case spurred by concerns that her cast and crew on her film, which would end up being named From Tehran to London due to the circumstances of its completion, would face arrest on the basis of what has happened to Panahi and others. Now a resident in the UK, she is perhaps still best known to audiences here as the star of Kiarostami’s acclaimed 2002 film Ten, but various sources – the BFI, writer-director Mark Cousins and the Edinburgh International Film Festival among them – are serving to raise the profile of this most exciting filmmaker…
Full interview for The Skinny