Friday, August 30, 2013

Director Spotlight #15.5: Martin Scorsese's New York, New York


Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the eternally enthusiastic Martin Scorsese.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 71/B

When you’re on top of the world, it’s easy for hubris to take over. That’s certainly the case for the New Hollywood directors of the 1970s, most of whom stumbled in the late 70s and early 80s with films that saw ambition overtaking better judgment. It was the case for Spielberg with 1941 and Coppola with One from the Heart, and it’s the case with Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York.

Scorsese’s passion project was his most experimental film up to that point and unlike anything he had ever attempted before. It was an old fashioned Hollywood musical, but it also tried to inject the realism and grit of New Hollywood. It starred both a masterful Method actor (Robert De Niro) and a musical performer borne of Old Hollywood royalty (Liza Minnelli, daughter of Judy Garland and director Vincente Minnelli). It featured both toe-tapping musical numbers and heavy improvisation, and it was nearly three hours long. In short, it’s an unwieldy movie, and it’s not surprising that the film bombed so badly at the box office, sending an already unstable Scorsese further into drug addiction and depression. But while the film isn’t entirely successful, it’s still a fascinating, fitfully brilliant movie, an often thrilling work of a genius that lacks discipline.

V-J Day, 1945- the war has ended, and sax-player Jimmy Doyle (De Niro) wants to celebrate and get laid. He meets aspiring singer Francine Evans (Minnelli) and pesters her all night, but to no avail. The next day, Jimmy ropes Francine into coming to an audition with him, and they form a partnership. Jimmy and Francine fall in love, but Jimmy’s argumentative nature frequently gets them in trouble. The two get married and Francine gets pregnant, but Jimmy grows increasingly controlling, bullying, and violent, especially as Francine’s star starts to rise.

New York, New York opens with a series of bravura crane and dolly shots that capture the excitement of V-J Day. Scorsese and cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs lose him in the crowd, only to highlight his presence when the camera stops near a neon arrow, as if to show his innate loneliness even on a night of celebration. That’s repeated often in the opening- De Niro’s our focus, but he’s just one of the many. A later shot that echoes Taxi Driver shows an empty stairway as De Niro makes a phone call, then shows him walk down as he sees a couple dancing on a train platform. Scorsese

What’s fascinating his how Scorsese opens with a series of formalistic elements only to bring everything down to earth as soon as De Niro sees Minnelli, at which point he goes a smart use of shot/reverse shot to capture the natural rhythms of De Niro pestering Minnelli over and over again. It’s mostly De Niro’s show at this point while Minnelli simply reacts to him coming on like a freight train. It plays in part like an acting exercise- one goes big, the other recedes- but it’s an excellent acting exercise.

Much of the film is a push-pull between the John Cassavetes-style reality of the  improvisations and the Vincente Minnelli-influenced artificiality of the musical and formal elements. More than any of Scorsese’s previous films, New York, New York is about movies, and specifically the psychology behind the genre. It’s a more aggressively downbeat musical than most, but then again, many of the great musicals of Old Hollywood had an underlying sadness. Minnelli’s masterpiece Meet Me in St. Louis was about the deep sadness in a family after the patriarch decides to move the family out of their hometown, where George Cukor’s adaptation of A Star is Born takes the melodrama of a young actress who outpaces her alcoholic husband to dizzying heights and soul-crushing lows.

Minnelli and Cukor’s films were a huge influence on Scorsese, and Scorsese uses that mentality to comment on how musicals were often used as a distraction from pressing, life or world-changing real concerns (The Great Depression, World War II, unhappy home lives). Every set looks splashy and artificial in a gorgeous, Old Hollywood way, but the characters (particularly De Niro’s Jimmy) act like the pricklier, more realistic, less likable people that populated New Hollywood.

Romance blooms out of thin air only to turn nasty and bullying very quickly- Jimmy practically forces Francine into a relationship with him, only to berate her when she tries to inspire their band, keep her on the road when she gets pregnant, and shows clear jealousy and anger at Francine’s rising star. The musical sequences soar while the loud, punishing shouting matches bring us back down to earth. Two scenes illustrate the deep sadness of the world- one of Jimmy’s lame, incredibly false proclamation of love outside a cheap looking fake forest (“I love you. I mean, I don’t love you, I dig you, I like you a lot”), and another where he impulsively takes her to get married, with no proposal, out on what’s clearly a snow-covered soundstage. The way Scorsese juxtaposes cold reality with movie-ness is powerful, and often heartbreaking.

That said, the juxtaposition isn’t particularly clean. The improvisations are often thrilling, but while the circular level of repetition is clearly intentional, it does grow exhausting. De Niro plays his character like it’s a warm-up for Raging Bull (and, to some extent, the more discursive The King of Comedy), throwing any concern for likability out the window early. He’s all wild, storming jealousy, while Minnelli is a passive, put-upon rag doll silently suffering under his fury. They’re both good at what they need to do, but it doesn’t make the film easier to watch.

The film plays more like a collection of scenes tethered to a concept than a clean narrative, and after a while it becomes increasingly clear that there’s no real through line to move things along. Nearly all of the dialogue is improvised, and while it’s all believable, it’s a bit much to take together. Scorsese had allowed improvisation on his previous films, but here he lets it overwhelm the story and go almost totally out of control.

New York, New York was filmed while Scorsese was at the peak of his cocaine addiction, and it shows- it all plays like a wildly ambitious idea that doesn’t allow something as dull as concern for narrative economy. The film feels channeled through Scorsese’s raw paranoia and anger. It’s reflective and self-lacerating (Scorsese admitted that at this point he was given to screaming and throwing things at any sign of argument), but it’s also schizophrenic.

But because the film is a mess doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily bad. Just as the film threatens to go totally off the rails, Minnelli and De Niro finally, mercifully split. After the loudest, most punishing argument yet leads to Francine going into labor, the film quiets down as Jimmy shows up at her bedside in one of the film’s most moving scenes. The intense shame on De Niro’s face here is palpable- he breaks down before leaving, as if he knows that the child and Francine will be better off without him.

And then, after a number of earlier scenes of Minnelli performing in nightclubs, the film turns into a real musical in the “Happy Endings” sequence (and thank goodness, because Liza can sing like it's nobody's business). Francine, now a movie star, plays an usherette in a movie theater, mooning over the romanticism of the movies, lamenting that happy endings are “only for the stars/not in the stars for me”. Unlike the earlier scenes, there’s a meet-cute between her and a theatergoer, and he gets a chance to see her sing in a nightclub. The film takes on the splashy, colorful aesthetic of the big fantasy sequences of The Band Wagon or Singin’ in the Rain, Francine’s character Peggy knocks her song out of the park, and she gets the good news from her date- “I produce!”

The musical starts to resemble a much quieter and more optimistic version of Francine’s life- just as she gets famous, the man of her dreams leaves her behind, only to reconnect with her later. It’s the peaceful breakup and happy reunion she never had with Jimmy…and it’s all a fantasy, as the camera pulls out of Francine’s diamond-ring and we see her back in the theater, crestfallen. We get a repeat of the producer bit as Peggy gets a happy ending after all, but the falseness of it says it all- even when dreams come true, happy endings aren’t necessarily in the stars for the stars.

That’s proven by the tentative reunion between Francine and Jimmy, now a successful sax-player and nightclub owner but clearly lonely. He’s had a hit with the song he wrote for her, “Theme from New York, New York”, and she’s had an even bigger hit with her sung version of it. But they can’t mend their relationship, and his condescending yet pained “I’m very proud of you, in a way” shows their incompatibility even as Jimmy makes a last attempt to reunite with her. It’s a scene that’s similar to the ending of Scorsese’s more successful The Age of Innocence, Jimmy waits at the curb, outside her stage door before he realizes he’s been stood up. A shot of Francine entering an elevator, the doors closing- she’s made up her mind, and she’s moving on.

A final shot shows Jimmy’s nice shoes on the (fake) pavement, echoing an earlier shot of his cheap shoes on V-J Day. He’s finally made it, but loneliness hasn’t left him. It’s a beautiful, graceful ending for a film that’s often graceless, but rewarding. Scorsese would spiral further down into drug addiction before Robert De Niro brought him Raging Bull, a film that again saw him mixing grim reality with dizzying formalism, more successfully this time. As problematic as New York, New York is, it’s an essential stepping-stone in Scorsese’s career, and it’s hard to imagine his subsequent work being as stunning without it.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this
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Thursday, August 29, 2013

Director Spotlight #15.4: Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver


Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the eternally enthusiastic Martin Scorsese.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 99/A

The term “nightmarish” applies to plenty of films, but few more so than Taxi Driver. That’s in part because it captures the living nightmare state that screenwriter Paul Schrader was in when he wrote it- Schrader admitted that he had barely talked to anyone for three weeks at the time he wrote it. But it’s also because of Robert De Niro’s paranoid, quietly intense performance, and because of the portrait of 1970s New York as an urban hell. Most of all, it’s because of Martin Scorsese, who combined the language of horror cinema with the depth of feeling of European art cinema. The result is not only one of Scorsese’s greatest films, but perhaps the most frightening, viscerally upsetting film ever made.

Travis Bickle (De Niro) is a time bomb. A Vietnam veteran working as a taxi driver in New York, Travis resents the city around him, the “whores…queens…junkies” and others, but he can’t deny his intense loneliness. Travis connects with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a pretty political campaign worker for presidential candidate Senator Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris), but when he takes her to a porno movie on their first date, she rejects him. Dejected and alienated, Travis spirals further down into paranoid madness and plans to assassinate Palantine. Meanwhile, he meets Iris (Jodie Foster), a 12-year-old prostitute working for “Sport” (Harvey Keitel), and plans to get her out of the profession, one way or another.

Taxi Driver builds an atmosphere of dread from its first shot, as a taxi emerges from a dense cloud of smoke, looking like it’s coming out of hell. We then see the weary eyes of Travis, the eyes a window to a dead soul, and the impressionistic blends of color, rain, and light. We soon learn that Travis is an insomniac, and the opening shots make more sense. He’s in an isolated waking nightmare, and everything around him is “sick, venal”.

Schrader took influence from the works of Robert Bresson, among others, and both he and Scorsese use the framework of Bresson’s Pickpocket as a guideline for Travis’ alienation (he even uses journals as narration like Bresson’s protagonist), while Scorsese also envisioned Travis as a modern day version of John Wayne’s character from The Searchers- a pitiable man without a place, but also a virulent, dangerous racist. Scorsese also borrows from 60s art films of Stanley Kubrick (use of ultra-precise compositions) and Jean-Luc Godard in a handful of the more experimental touches- most notably a shot of Travis seeing his problems reflected in the bubbles of seltzer water, taken from 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, which was itself influenced by Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out.

But the most notable influences on Taxi Driver’s form are the classic horror films Scorsese grew up with- the creeping dread of Jacques Tourneur and the floridness of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (not to mention the sense of voyeurism the viewer gets from peeking directly into the killer’s psychology). Scorsese also borrows extensively from Hitchcock, both visually and sonically. In terms of look and feel, Scorsese was particularly influenced by free-floating paranoia of The Wrong Man.

But of course, the most notable Hitchcock nod comes from the score of regular Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann (his final score, recorded hours before his death). Herrmann’s score is typically foreboding, as if the brass and drums capture the psychology of a man who’s slowly going man. But the sultry saxophone line of the main theme suggests that much of what disgusts and horrifies Travis is also something that fascinates him.

Scorsese brings in some of his more realistic influences- Kazan, Cassavetes- with the improvisations and the on-location shooting, and they help give a beating, recognizable heart to what’s otherwise his most overtly formalistic film yet. Every location feels real and lived-in, not to mention a time capsule of a much more overtly frightening New York. Some of Scorsese’s more dynamic shots serve to give a sense of the realistic environment, such as a dolly shot that loses De Niro, surveys the taxi parking garage, and reconnects with him.

It helps that Scorsese assembles a once-in-a-lifetime cast where even the smallest role is memorable: tiny parts from a weary porno theater concession girl (Diahnne Abbott), a personnel officer (Joe Spinell) underline Travis’ loneliness or, in the case of guns/drug dealer Easy Andy (Steven Prince) and a creepy passenger (Scorsese himself), the depravity of the city. There’s also Albert Brooks (in his film debut) as the hilariously ineffectual campaign worker Tom, Harris as the snobby blueblood Senator Palantine, and, in my favorite minor role, Peter Boyle as Travis’ mentor “Wizard”, a well-meaning cab driver gives friendly advice to a man who’s beyond help.

The three largest supporting roles are all perfect as well. Shepherd’s early scenes with De Niro show someone who’s both charmed and fascinated by this strange but sincere man, a perfect counterpoint to her shock at his more erratic behavior later on. Keitel is even better as Sport, in that he manages to be both creepy (he is a pimp for child prostitutes) and strangely charming at the same time. It’s a role that could easily be a cartoon with a lesser actor, but Keitel gives a richly human performance that gives a visceral jolt to his ultimate fate. Best of all the supporting roles is Foster in one of the most natural child performances ever put on film. Foster nails Iris’ precocious, adult-like tone while still seeming very much like a kid. She’s someone who’s somehow both aware and unaware of how she’s being exploited, in that she knows the trouble she’s in but also considers Sport to be the only real family she has.


The real draw, of course, is De Niro, giving the best performance of the 1970s (and somehow only the second-best performance of his career) as the lonely, alienated Travis Bickle. What’s great about Travis is how hard it is to get a hold on him in the opening thirty minutes- he’s deeply strange, paranoid, and even early on shows signs of racism, but it’s easy to relate to his loneliness. What’s more, he can be charming, as he is in his early scenes with Shepherd, and his ill-considered date with Betsy isn’t necessarily a sign of malice. The scene in which Travis calls Betsy is best known for Scorsese’s brilliant camera movement to the empty hallway- a sign of his loneliness and a move that indicates that this is too painful to watch- but it’s also memorable for how defeated De Niro sounds as we hear his end of the call and imagine Betsy’s dismissiveness.

And then he starts to unravel- the scene where he storms into Palantine headquarters and rants at Betsy is the first sign that this guy is truly capable of anything, and the pronounced (but measured) anger in his proclamation that “You’re gonna die in a hell like the rest of them” colors every frame afterwards. Suddenly, his dead-eyed stares look less like that of an insomniac and more the sign of a man who’s about to explode. De Niro’s performance is terrifying in that it lets the audience in on his self-destruction while credibly hiding the depths of his madness from most of the rest of the cast.

More than any Scorsese movie before it, Taxi Driver’s form matches its central concept- that of intense loneliness and alienation leading to madness. Virtually every shot in the first half of the film serves Travis’ isolation- a jump-cut/dissolve showing his restlessness as he walks down the streets, Travis marginalized in a corner of the frame (this is how you do it, Tom Hooper), takes of the other cabbies chatting framed to emphasize Travis’ distance, and Travis walking in slow-motion, the only one in focus in a sea of out-of-focus people. The repetition here is key, as it makes Travis’ temporary connection with Betsy (photographed initially in a way that emphasizes their closeness) more powerful. And then Scorsese separates them whenever Travis fails to connect, whether he doesn’t understand her reference to a Kris Kristofferson song or she’s trying to stay far, far away from him after their disastrous date.

The repetition also serves to emphasize Travis’ racism, which is clear through the script but hits hardest with Scorsese’s frequent cuts to Travis staring at black people with fear or disgust. It’s a tricky balancing act- handled wrong, the film itself could come off as racist itself, considering the way Scorsese uses horror-movie style tracking shots to imply Travis’ eyeline. But Scorsese’s juxtaposes these shots with Travis’ isolation, which helps further the idea of Travis as a figure of intense alienation and madness.

The claustrophobia of Travis’ apartment (another throwback to Pickpocket) only helps to serve the more intense isolation later on. Now, Scorsese combines alienation with routine- a man building up his body, messing around with guns like a mad John Wayne, fashioning new ways to hide his weapons, and hammering a cross into a bullet, as if he’s an angel of death. The editing grows jagged and disorienting- scenes of Travis in his apartment with long hair are mixed up with later scenes of a short-haired Travis talking with Iris or a secret service agent. There’s also two key moments with Travis at a television- the first watching couples dance to Jackson Browne’s “Late for the Sky” (one of the best moments in the film), the second watching a soap opera as he accidentally kicks over and breaks his television. Both emphasize his profound disconnection with the people on the screen (not to mention the isolating effect TV has in the first place), while his destruction of the television severs one of his final links to humanity.

That destruction is a key point- as told by Schrader and Scorsese, Taxi Driver is as much a tale of self-made loneliness as it is about natural loneliness. Travis often puts himself into the situations he so hates- he rants about degradation in the city while offering to drive “anytime, anywhere”. He calls himself “God’s Lonely Man” and claims that he wants to join society, but he also pushes himself away. He fears Scorsese’s mad passenger, who rants about killing his cheating wife, but he takes the man’s idea as a jumping-off point for his own mad mission.

Travis idolizes Betsy (like many Scorsese protagonists, he doesn’t understand women) and views her as an angel, but he brings her to a porno theater, as if he’s trying to turn the Madonna of his Madonna/whore complex into a whore. Later, he puts himself into a hell with Iris, arguing that he needs to be there to save her, as if he’s trying to undo his mistake by turning a literal whore into a Madonna. What’s striking here is that Iris offers Travis a way out, asking him to come with her to a commune in the country. It’s a way out of hell, and yet Travis turns it down, saying that he doesn’t “get along with people like that.” At this point, he’s committed to being lonely.

The film’s most quoted scene, in which De Niro talks to himself in the mirror (“You talkin’ to me?”) is fascinating for how often it’s quoted in other films or by other people as a way to look like a tough guy rather than a lunatic. At this point in the film, Travis no longer seeks connection with people. Any connection, any “move” someone makes, is the sign of an enemy for this paranoia case. “Here is a man who would not take it anymore”, intones Travis, as he claims to stand up to “the scum, the cunts, the filth, the dogs, the shit.” But Travis isn’t standing up to society’s degradation so much as he’s standing up to a world that’s rejected him (there’s a striking overhead shot of him curling up on his bed, alone). At this point, he’s not the guy who’s going to shoot a bunch of creepy pedophiles, but the guy who wants to kill a presidential candidate because he symbolizes the higher society that rejected him.

When that plot goes wrong, Travis’ next actions are as much about assuaging his rage as they are about saving Iris and redeeming himself (in his own eyes, so to speak). At this point, he’s committed to his isolation, and Scorsese kicks off one of the most harrowing set-pieces ever put on film. It starts as a natural, Rossellini-like portrait of Keitel’s shooting, as if it were observed from across the street (De Niro’s fumble as he tries to pull his gun out is an especially nice touch). De Niro sits down on the stoop, as if to collect himself. This is it. There’s no going back.

Here, Michael Chapman’s extraordinary camerawork and Marcia Lucas’ editing hit their peak- there’s a montage of faces (including a terrified Iris) as Travis shoots the doorman’s hand off, a super-fast dolly backwards as an injured Sport shoots and grazes Travis’ neck. The film starts to go in slow motion, as if Scorsese is prolonging a train-wreck that can’t be stopped, until the editing suddenly becomes rapid-pace as Travis kills a pedophilic Mafioso. The camerawork becomes unsteady as Travis behavior becomes more zombielike, as if he’s closed off all of his humanity, and, to Iris’ pronounced horror, Travis blows another man’s brains out.

Chapman initially photographed the scene to look like a slaughterhouse, but the colors were desaturated to avoid an X-rating. While it would have been great to see Scorsese and Chapman’s intended product (the negative is too deteriorated for them to change it back), the desaturation gives the blood an unreal, drained tone that’s still rather disturbing. And as Travis falls to the couch and the police enter, Chapman cuts to an iconic close-up of De Niro’s mohawked head and bloody hand, a mad, avenging angel ready to die after this explosion of violence. As the camera takes a god’s eye view and we see exactly what carnage Travis has left in his wake, Herrmann’s score hits its nightmarish heights. We’ve been through hell, and if the film were to end here, it would already have ended on a chilling note.

Notably, the film goes on for another beat, as we learn Iris has been returned to her parents’ hands and Travis has been hailed as a hero. Many have interpreted this as Travis’ dying fantasy, but I find Scorsese and Schrader’s view far more fascinating. It’s a sign that, as Pauline Kael wrote in her review, “the city’s crazier than he is”. Possibly. Travis might have been embraced by Iris’ family, the city, and the cabbies, and even Betsy has a semi-reconciliation with Travis after he accepts her as a fare and drops her off, free of charge. But there’s still an uneasy tension in the air as he drives her, and especially as he pulls away. A strange sound on the soundtrack (a bell played in reverse) and a shot of Travis looking frantically in the rearview mirror starts of the cycle anew. Make no mistake- he will kill again. It’s only a matter of time.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this
link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Curious about my favorite films from various years? Check out my account on
Letterboxd.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The World's End


Grade: 77/B+

Edgar Wright takes his interest in nonconformity and perpetual adolescence to its darkest territory yet in The World’s End. Wright is easily the most gifted genre satirist working today- someone with an innate understanding of film history, language, and how they’ve become common tongue among cinephiles. But what makes his films so memorable even after the laughing ends is his deep empathy for the fuck-ups and goofballs on the screen, and his belief that they can turn their lives around, even if it takes the end of the world to do it.

Gary King (frequent Wright protagonist Simon Pegg) is a middle-aged alcoholic living in the past, and his antics stopped being funny twenty years ago. Gary manages to rope his old high school friends into undertaking The Golden Mile, a 12-pub stretch that demands a pint at each bar, all ending at the titular bar. Along for the ride: ineffectual Peter (Eddie Marsan); ultra-professional real estate man Oliver (Martin Freeman); Steven (Paddy Considine), who never forgave Gary for sleeping with Oliver’s sister, whom he loved; and old best friend Andy (Nick Frost), who harbors his own grudge against Gary. The five return to their old hometown, only to find that not everything is what it seems.

Without revealing the specific sci-fi films Wright is riffing on (though the trailers give plenty away), it’s needless to say that he handles the genre elements with aplomb. Wright proved himself an inspired director of action with Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and while he tones down the earlier films’ kineticism, the Jackie Chan-inspired fight scenes here are still a perfect blend of stunts, action, and comedy. Wright brings his sense of energy and flow to each frame, and the film features some of his best gags yet (every mention of the Three Musketeers is priceless).

Wright gives the supporting players (Marsan, Considine, Freeman) great stuff to work with, but the film, like the previous installments in his Cornetto Trilogy (the masterpiece Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) is about the relationship between Pegg and Frost, both playing against type here. Pegg is an actor of immense charm and likability, but it’s in service of a self-centered character whose nonconformity hides the deep-rooted sadness of a man with nothing left. Frost is equally excellent as Andy, who plays like what would happen if Danny from Hot Fuzz grew up and had his heart broken by his best friend.

The World’s End is fascinating in that it has a more ambivalent view on individualism than Wright’s previous films- it’s all about how our innate humanity is in our “right to be fuck-ups”, and how that might clash with the order that keeps our lives together. The World’s End doesn’t quite match the heights of Wright’s previous films: the pacing is sometimes slack, and the purposefully messy ending, while admirable and fascinating, isn’t entirely satisfying. But it’s all in the service of what might be his most poignant film.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this
link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Curious about my favorite films from various years? Check out my account on
Letterboxd.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Director Spotlight #15.3: Martin Scorsese's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore


Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the eternally enthusiastic Martin Scorsese.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 84/A-

There’s a famous anecdote about how Martin Scorsese was hired for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore where he meets Ellen Burstyn. Burstyn wanted a director with a sense of grit to keep Alice from being another corny melodrama, and she was impressed with Scorsese’s Mean Streets. She asked him what he knew about women, to which he replied, “Nothing, but I’d like to learn.” It’s a good story, but it’s also indicative of why Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is so memorable- it’s a combination of intellectual curiosity and sensitivity with an expressive, powerful sensibility. It’s what happens when seemingly disparate elements come together and form a cohesive whole.

Alice Hyatt (Burstyn) leaves a small town in New Mexico with her smartass son Tommy (Alfred Lutter) after her boor of a husband dies in an accident. She has dreams of being a singer in California, but her financial situation forces her to stop in Arizona, first in Phoenix, then, after an encounter with an abusive lover (Harvey Keitel), in Tucson, where she gets a job as a waitress. Alice finds a new support system with Flo (Diane Ladd), her tough-talking co-worker, and David (Kris Kristofferson), a local rancher whom she falls in love with. But Alice has dreams, and love might have to meet her on her own terms.

It’s easy to see why Burstyn wanted a tougher sensibility on set, as this could easily be saccharine, forgettable stuff. But just like he did with Mean Streets, Scorsese is able to borrow from different parts of film history and mix them together into something altogether new. The director takes the romanticism and longing of the old “women’s pictures” of William Wyler, Douglas Sirk, and Max Ophuls and blends them with the more natural work of Elia Kazan and John Cassavetes.

The film opens with a homage to The Wizard of Oz, shot through a blood-red filter that gives a feeling of death and entrapment as a young Alice sings to herself and promises to make it as a singer. It’s an odd scene, and it plays as a little contrived, but it’s also visually dynamic, and its relative silence and stillness plays as a great counterpoint to the next scene, a flash forward 27 years to Alice’s home in small-town New Mexico. Mott the Hoople’s “All the Way to Memphis” blares on the soundtrack to an incredible dolly shot that eventually cranes down to Alice’s home and dissolves to a shot of Burstyn, framed just by her window.

It’s an exciting introduction, but also serves to show that she hasn’t gotten out, and her kid, who’s blasting Mott the Hoople kid, looks just as trapped. Scorsese follows that up with a contentious dinner between Alice, Tommy, and her ornery husband Don that plays like a Cassavetes version of a classic melodrama- a woman suffers silently in quiet desperation under a dominating husband, but it’s been brought down from the heightened world of classic melodrama into something more immediate. That mixture of styles is absolutely intoxicating- we’re in the hands of a director who knows the language of cinema and how to exploit it to its fullest potential.

What’s especially great is that Scorsese knows when it makes the most sense to use a heightened style and when to strip everything down. Two key scenes that show this: in the first, Alice has just come home from her husband’s funeral, and the camera again pulls up to a window, closed, trapping her in. She sits at the piano and plays the melancholy standard “Where or When”, and the camera cuts inside, panning around her. It’s deeply sad, but the freeness to the camera is exciting. Alice isn’t tied down anymore, and as the camera goes through a different window, an open window, the feeling of opportunity and dreams reignited is unmistakable.

It’s a romantic scene, and it stands in stark contrast to a later one, after Alice learns that her new lover, Ben (Keitel), is married. Up to this point, Ben has been a charming cowboy type, but when his wife comes to Alice’s house to tell her the truth, we see a much nastier side as Ben breaks into Alice’s home, beats his wife, and threatens to hit Alice. Scorsese shoots the whole scene with a handheld camera, which adds to the immediacy of a terrifying moment in Alice’s life.

It helps that Scorsese is just about the best director of actors who ever picked up a camera. Nearly every part is perfectly cast: Keitel as the initially charming, then vicious Ben; Diane Ladd (in an Oscar-nominated turn) as Alice’s sweetly profane co-worker; young Jodie Foster as Tommy’s delinquent tomboy friend; Kris Kristofferson as a man with a perfect mixture of ruggedness and sensitivity. Scorsese especially deserves praise for getting such a natural performance out of young Alfred Lutter. Part of the reason why Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore doesn’t feel sappy is because of how believable the parent-child dynamic is. Lutter never feels too precious. At different points, he’s a charming smartass, a pest (Scorsese reportedly took the character’s nonsensical dog joke from a long, drawn-out joke Lutter kept trying to explain to him), or a total brat.

But the film ultimately belongs to Burstyn, who won an Oscar for Best Actress in a very crowded year (competition: Faye Dunaway in Chinatown, Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence). Burstyn’s performance is without vanity- she’s willing to push Alice’s annoyance with her offspring to places that could seem unsympathetic (“If you ask me that one more time, I’m going to beat you to death”), to look put-upon without being a saint. That she also manages to be romantic without being a pushover is central- the whole film is about Alice struggling to find her own independence, and Burstyn’s mixture of toughness and fragility is perfect.

Scorsese said that he didn’t know anything about women, but loneliness and the sense of being trapped by societal expectations are universal ideas, and Scorsese channels those personal themes into Alice’s story. In the early scenes, Alice tries to please her husband only to come up short next to an unfeeling man. Later on, she’s she’s forced to deal with sexist bosses (“Turn around? I don’t sing with my ass”) or take a service job because she doesn’t have other work experience. She’s limited by the world she lived in, just like Charlie in Mean Streets. Scorsese understands people, and that’s what’s important.

That said, this is Scorsese’s chance to get to know and understand women better, and to some degree that’s an arc that compliments Alice’s search for independence. Alice is first stuck with a man who barely talks to her and rules over his house with an iron fist. Her later relationship with Keitel’s character is even worse, as he threatens to hit her after she asks him to calm down. She’s constantly stuck with men who don’t understand women, and even when she meets a decent man in Kristofferson, there are problems.

A key scene shows her bratty son treating Kristofferson like garbage, but when Kristofferson snaps and hits Tommy, we’re instantly thrown against his side. It’s another man using might as right, even in a case where the kid did need to be reprimanded, and she can’t take it. And that’s what makes Kristofferson’s final scene with Alice so moving. He offers to sell his ranch in order to be with her when she moves out to California to pursue her dream. She’s taken off-guard (Kristofferson reportedly improvised this, to great effect), and even though she does decide to stay in Tucson, it doesn’t feel like a cop-out. Finally, there’s a man who’s willing to change for her, to better himself for her. It’s another romance, but it’s romance on her terms, something that she never thought she’d have. It’s one of the most optimistic endings in Scorsese’s oeuvre, and better yet, it’s earned.

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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Director Spotlight #15.2: Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets


Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the eternally enthusiastic Martin Scorsese.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 97/A

“You don’t make up for your sins in the church. You do it in the streets. The rest is bullshit, and you know it.”

So begins Mean Streets, Martin Scorsese’s first masterpiece and still one of his signature films. In a way, Mean Streets is the first real Scorsese film after early warnings from Who’s That Knocking at My Door and Boxcar Bertha. The former showed Scorsese’s artistic sensibility, and the latter showed his skill at handling a lean genre film, but Mean Streets is the first film to mix these talents together.

With its release, notable Scorsese supporters like Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert hailed the arrival of one of the most original filmmakers of his generation. Watching Mean Streets, it’s easy to see why. Scorsese didn’t even shoot the film in New York, where it takes place, but managed to get the feeling right so that Los Angeles easily passed for New York. Mix that with an innovative rock soundtrack, appropriately grungy camerawork, fast-paced editing, and a pantheon performance or two, and you’ve got one of the definitive films of the 1970s.

Charlie Cappa (Harvey Keitel) is a man pulled at all ends. He tries to be a good Catholic, but he works as a debt collector for his uncle, a local mafia captain. He loves Teresa (Amy Robinson), but the community ostracizes her for her epilepsy, which they believe is a sign of mental illness. Charlie wants to move up in the mob, but his loyalty to his reckless, disrespectful friend (and Teresa’s cousin) Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) brings him down, especially after Johnny Boy crosses loan shark Michael (Richard Romanus).

Mean Streets feels so vital because Scorsese blends seventy years of film history and influences into one distinct sensibility. From Howard Hawks and the 1930s Warner Bros. gangster films, he brings a tight structure; from the Italian neorealists and his mentor John Cassavetes, he brings a sense of immediacy and reality; from  Max Ophuls and Stanley Kubrick, he brings technical skill, especially in a few bravura tracking shots; from the French New Wave, he brings cinematic inventiveness and playfulness; from Federico Fellini, he brings a colorful, seriocomic milieu; from Elia Kazan, he brings heightened drama; from John Ford, he brings macho posturing; and from his most undervalued source, the melodramas of men like Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Ray, he takes a protagonist who superficially fits into a community, but who feels oppressed and crushed by the constrictive society he lives in. Mean Streets isn’t the apex of Scorsese’s fascination with mixing the realistic with the formalistic, but it’s a sign that he knew what he was doing damn near from the get-go.

For anyone who needed proof of that, just look at the opening, which uses handheld cameras to give a natural, day-in-the-life feeling to Charlie’s waking hours, but then uses a number of quick cuts to bring us closer to Charlie’s tortured face as The Ronnettes’ “Be My Baby” starts up. Right away, the film has a pulsating energy that sets it apart from Francis Ford Coppola’s more classical The Godfather. Or take a look at the cut that takes us from Charlie sticking his hands in a church’s candle flame, as if he were giving himself his own penance, to a bar brightly lit with the sinful color of red. Or a tracking shot behind Charlie in the bar that makes Keitel look as if he were floating- he’s the cool guy, the guy in the bar that everybody likes. Or, for another memorable long take, a shot strapped to Keitel’s body as he drunkenly stumbles around to The Chips’ goofy, scat-heavy “Rubber Biscuit”- the camera is undercranked to give a woozy sense. It’s a fun sequence, but it’s also a take that gives us a chance to focus on Keitel’s face as it tries (and fails) to drown his conflict.

But while Scorsese’s film isn’t without its share of great shots, the editing of Mean Streets is most central to its success. Whether he’s cutting between a bunch of macho guys watching their heroes on the screen (in this case John Wayne in John Ford’s The Searchers) or he’s introducing an element of Godard-like playfulness to a love scene (as Keitel peeks through his fingers at his girlfriend changing), there’s a live wire energy to the film that Scorsese would exploit again and again throughout his career. Even a simple sequence like Charlie preparing for a night out is exciting- there’s a liveliness to the ritual, an importance that would be lost had the scene been edited poorly.

The editing is particularly effective when dealing with the film’s violence. Much of the energy here comes from the film’s grungy camerawork, unchoreographed roughness, and colorful milieu. But Scorsese knows when to hold steady on a moment (a Vietnam veteran’s outburst in the bar) and when he needs to give us a sense of freneticism, especially during a shootout near the end after Charlie, Johnny Boy, and Teresa are shot by Michael. The escalating violence needs an explosion, and the brutality of the violence hits precisely because we’re caught up in the confusion of the moment.

But the film’s truest technical achievement comes from an earlier scene, one that immediately heralds the coming of a screen legend. As De Niro’s troublemaker Johnny Boy enters a bar, the camera tracks up to Charlie, whose peace is about to be shattered by a character who’s capable of anything. The film goes into a slow motion as De Niro enters, a girl under each arm, lit like the devil as the Rolling Stones song “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” starts up. Trouble has just walked through the door, in the form of the film’s most dominating presence. With that scene alone, Scorsese has created a screen icon. It’s film mythmaking at its finest.

That’s not to underplay De Niro’s own contributions to the film. Mean Streets is filled with perfect casting choices, with Robert Romanus being especially good as self-important hood Michael. And Scorsese found an ideal center in Keitel, so good at selling his character’s inner conflict while still showing why Charlie might be so well liked within the community. But to Keitel’s pull, there’s De Niro’s temperamental push. Scorsese always had a skill directing actors, and De Niro’s first dialogue scene would rank alongside Elia Kazan’s best work for its utter naturalness.

Johnny Boy owes money all over town, and Michael has started bugging Charlie about it, but that hasn’t deterred Johnny Boy from his flippancy with money. He’ll buy drinks all around, he’ll call attention to himself, and he’ll flirt with two girls at once…and conceivably look like he’ll take them both home. There’s a great shot-reverse between De Niro and Keitel as Johnny Boy bullshits an explanation for not paying Michael back and Charlie looks on with a mixture of amusement and irritation. This guy is fucking everything up for him, but he’s also wildly entertaining.

That sense of conflict is important, considering that self-hatred and guilt is the central theme of Mean Streets (not to mention a dozen other Scorsese films). Charlie tries to justify his participation in the mob by trying to make everything run smoothly, even trying to clear up all of Johnny Boy’s problems. But he can’t play saint when he’s a sinner, and he’s ultimately limited by his fear- fear that dating an epileptic girl he loves would ruin him, fear that dating a black girl would get him laughed at,  and fear that even if he wanted to get out of this life, he couldn’t. He’s especially damned for supporting a friend who takes every good chance he has and throws it away just for the right to say “fuck you” again.

In the final scene, Charlie, Teresa, and Johnny Boy stumble out of a shooting and car wreck. Teresa’s being pulled out of a car, not shot but clearly a mess. De Niro’s clenching his shot-through neck, bleeding and stumbling around like Marlon Brando at the end of On the Waterfront. And then there’s Charlie, his hand shot through in a stigmata, now likely on the outside after being shot at by Michael and being too close to Johnny Boy and Teresa. He falls on his knees, as if to ask the Lord for help. But as many Scorsese protagonists find, the answers don’t come so easily.

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Monday, August 12, 2013

Passion


Grade: 67/B

Brian De Palma is one of the most talented thriller directors in the world, but his most recent films haven’t exactly been up to snuff. 2007’s Redacted was sunk by amateurish acting and a heavy-handed sermonizing, where his disastrous adaptation of The Black Dahlia was epically miscast and dramatically inert. His new film, Passion, isn’t quite a return to form, but it’s a return to the loopy thrillers that he specializes in, and it’s a step in the right direction.

Isabelle (Noomi Rapace) works as an assistant to Christine (Rachel McAdams), an advertising executive at a Berlin firm. Christine is manipulative, domineering, and prone to passing Isabelle’s ideas off as her own. When Isabelle finally breaks away from Christine’s grip, her boss runs her through a series of humiliations. Crushed and broken, Isabelle devises a plan to take revenge on Christine.

Passion is a remake of the French film Love Crime, a subpar thriller flatly directed by the late Alain Corneau. In the new film’s rough first thirty minutes, it looks like De Palma hasn’t much improved on Corneau’s work. The dialogue is stilted and awkward, De Palma’s portrait of a cutthroat advertising world isn’t believable, and the film plods along with the same stolid efficiency as the original. It doesn’t help that De Palma continues his late-period difficulty in casting here- McAdams tries to vamp it up but feels like she’s playing dress up, and Rapace is uncharacteristically stiff as Isabelle.

But at a key moment in the film, De Palma’s regular composer Pino Donaggio throws in a wonderfully over-the-top musical cue, and the film turns into a real De Palma movie. Like many of De Palma’s films, Passion is about voyeurism, and about the importance of who’s watching at any given moment. It’s central in Rapace’s humiliation, and in the agreeably crazy finale which, although it doesn’t make much sense, shows De Palma’s gift at pulling the rug out from under the audience. Best of all is a set-piece that’s destined to go down as one of De Palma’s best- a split-screen that focuses half of the audience’s attention on a murder, and half on a fourth-wall breaking performance of Nijinsky’s ballet Afternoon of a Faun. Passion doesn’t rank next to Sisters or Dressed to Kill as one of De Palma’s strongest, but it’s bound to be one of the most formally exciting thrillers this year.

This film is available on VOD and iTunes now, and will be released in theatres August 30.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this
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The Conjuring


Grade: 44/C

James Wan started as the gore-hound behind the schlocky but successful Saw, but lately, many have praised him for crafting old-fashioned, atmospheric ghost stories. Those people are on drugs. His latest, The Conjuring, has been touted as one of the most frightening films in ages, but it’s really little more than a slightly more proficient remake of his earlier, inexplicably praised Insidious. Like that film, it’s hokey and derivative exercise in that doesn’t do much more than yell “boo!” at the audience over and over again.

1971: Carolyn and Roger Perron (Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston) have just moved to an old farmhouse with their five daughters. It isn’t long before strange things to start happening- their dog shows up dead, weird bruises show up on Carolyn’s body, and a few of the daughters start to see spirits. The Perrons contact Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), a pair of paranormal investigators, for help. The Warrens soon find that the house has a terrifying history, and that tragedy will strike the Perrons if they don’t act soon.

The Conjuring largely feels like a grab-bag of elements from other horror movies, some effective (the use of a large armoire that’s reminiscent of The Haunting), most not (a family/investigator dynamic taken from Poltergeist, a haunted child/ball from The Changeling, more than a few bits from The Exorcist). It’s hardly uncommon for a director to reference his influences, but it’s distracting in a horror movie when so many of the scares are based off of other famous movie scares.

To be fair, he does craft a few memorable scenes, most notably a game of “hide and clap” and the use of a single lighted match in a dark space. But the film also has a number of obvious, count down till it happens scares, at it shares Insidious’ need to constantly play loud, dissonant music as a scare tactic. Unless you’re building an atmosphere of constant creeping dread the way Kubrick did with The Shining, a little bit of that goes a long way, and a lot is suffocating, especially if it’s used to punctuate damn near every shock moment. It’s as if Wan didn’t trust us to find something scary. By the end, the film collapses into sub-Exorcist hooey, the feeling that this guy is trying way, way too hard is unmistakable.

But what’s most frustrating about The Conjuring is its staggering structural ineptitude. The film begins in 1968 with an introduction to the Warrens on the job, flashes back to the haunting they’re investigating, then pulls out to reveal that the Warrens are actually discussing this particular haunting with their class. It gives some exposition on who these people are and what they do, but it also unloads a lot of information that has no bearing on the primary action of the film.

Much of the movie can’t decide whether Ed, Lorraine, or Carolyn is the protagonist, and while the film is (allegedly) based on a real haunting, Wan would do best to pare down the number of daughters the Perrons have, as most of them are interchangeable and superfluous to the narrative. You are allowed to change things from real life if they suit the story’s purpose, dude! Then there’s a number of elements (a young boy’s ghost, a haunted doll from the previous case) that are treated inconsistently as either benign or malevolent, narrative threads that go nowhere (the clairvoyant Lorraine seeing something during an exorcism), and a final note that refuses to deal with a number of other dangling threads. The Conjuring is likely Wan’s best movie yet, but moving from incompetence to semi-competence isn’t that laudable a feat.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this
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