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LFF Review: Scales / The Irishman

Basima Hajjar and Ashraf Barhoum in Shahad Ameen's Scales
Basima Hajjar and Ashraf Barhoum in Scales

Here I come, bounding down toward that invisible line separating constructive criticism and unnecessary unkindness! I've been thinking, though, about film criticism and exactly how necessary it is anyway, and my current status in that regard is that its necessariness (pause to consider how I wound up in such a situation as to use the word 'necessariness' in a review) is quite subjective and normally grossly inflated from the critic's own perspective. Now, I'll always endeavour to not be unkind, but facts are facts, folks! And the fact is that I didn't much care for Shahad Ameen's flimsy second feature, Scales. Ethically, I'm not sold on the validity of tearing into a young woman of colour early in her artistic career, so I'll keep this short - almost as short as this slight, unfortunately underdeveloped movie.

The story, insofar as it even exists, concerns a girl from a fictional island, saved as an infant by her father after her aborted an attempt at sacrificing her to the mermaids that surround the island, a custom for its people involving the giving up of one daughter from each family. If that's an intriguing concept, it never progresses past that - she's ended up with scales creeping up her leg, and seeks to escape her increasing ostracization in the community by joining its young boys in learning how to hunt the mermaids for food. It's obviously a feminist parable, but then shouldn't parables be obvious? The trouble is that Ameen doesn't flesh her parable out, preferring to stick rigidly to the central storyline, which doesn't offer her many opportunities for creative expression. Furthermore, she obfuscates much of what plot is actually there, perhaps striving for enigmatic ambiguity, but stranding herself in just a basic lack of clarity. And yet, through it all, Scales is a worthwhile artistic venture in one key aspect: its visual style. The very first image announces Ameen as a stylist of remarkable acuity, and her striking monochromatic imagery yields rewards aplenty throughout. She marks herself out as a filmmaker of enormous promise as such, yet does so in a movie of enormous disappointment. I'll be keeping an eye out for feature #3, though.

Joe Pesci and Robert de Niro in Martin Scorsese's The Irishman
Joe Pesci and Robert de Niro in The Irishman

At the other end of his career is one Martin Scorsese, whose fabulous latest, The Irishman, isn't far off triple Scales' length. It paces with the leisurely confidence of an aging artist who knows he has nothing left to prove, strolling toward 200 minutes and past it - you'd expect to need a pillow for a mid-movie nap, yet this movie is so engrossing I needed for nothing. I normally write my thoughts and impressions down during a movie, but I almost had to compel myself to turn my attention away from what was on screen. There's a whole lot of plot, of people, of old heterosexual white men in the same style ensembles in the same style locations in that classic gangster movie fashion where everyone starts to merge into the same person after a while. But all the details in The Irishman matter, naturally, though less naturally I found myself easily, happily staying on top of them, drinking them all in, savouring every second.

Even more so than in his last narrative feature, 2016's Silence, Scorsese's inspiration here is manifest not in the brash bravado of his earlier days but in the measured, collected assurance of his touch. He has nowhere to go, no two-hour mark to keep under, no legacy to furnish, no concern but those he deems important to his vision. The brutish, pounding rhythms he and long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker once rode to thrilling highs are stretched out in The Irishman to slow, sombre lows, each shot and each scene cut not to the size you expect of them but to the size they need to be. You'll stay until the end not just because you want to but because you've been convinced you have to, and indeed you do! And if that end delivers nothing more than a weary sigh of redundant remorse, it's all the more poignant for doing so. The technological innovation still surges ever forward, the edits are still as sharp and jagged as a serrated blade, he shocking violence still punctuates, but now we get a chance to see the damage those puncture wounds have done. All the air has been let out, all the blood has been drained, and a life lived through functional cruelty and manipulation, for whatever purposes it was intended to serve, has been abandoned to a quiet chair in the corner. This is a lumbering, melancholy, painfully sad and sorry movie. It's a work of a genius at the peak of his powers.

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