Friday, November 29, 2013

Director Spotlight #15.17: Martin Scorsese's Kundun


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: Because I try to go in-depth in these entries, there’s likely to be spoilers in this thing. If it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 60/B-

“Kundun! I liked it!” That line in the first season of The Sopranos is still what most Scorsese fans know of Kundun, Martin Scorsese’s 1997 Dalai Lama biopic. It’s pretty much all I knew before I recently caught up with it. The film has its ardent admirers (the great Jonathan Rosenbaum among them), but it’s so far removed from Scorsese’s usual wheelhouse that it’s not surprising that most regard it with a giant question mark. Kundun is not ultimately one of Scorsese’s great pictures, but it is a fascinating departure nonetheless, and one of the last true experiments in his filmography.

Lhamo Dondrub is born in a small Tibetan province near the Chinese border. When a lama (or Tibetan teacher of the Dharma) arrives one day and sees something in him, he brings back other lamas to prove that Lhamo is the reincarnation Dalai Lama. The boy (now known as Tenzin Gyatso) is brought to Lhasa, where he begins his studies to become the 14th Dalai Lama, but he grows up in a time of turmoil as the Chinese Communists try to bring Tibet back into Imperial China. The new Dalai Lama begins to clash with Mao Zedong, and when his life is in danger, he must flee his home to live in exile for the rest of his life.

The first thing most Kundun fans focus on is the film’s form, and with reason. Shot by Roger Deakins, this is one of the best-looking films in Scorsese’s oeuvre, and it’s particularly breathtaking in the first and final half hour, where narrative falls by the wayside to pure cinematic expression. Following some introductory credits, Scorsese begins with gorgeous imagery of a mountain, of snow blowing, an introduction to the pillar and beauty that is Tibet as Philip Glass’s exquisite score brings it even closer to transcendence. Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker make heavy use of dissolves, tying everything together as if time no longer mattered while Deakins’s imagery fluidly pans and dollies and captures sunlight as if it’s a look to the heavens, as if we’re in constant movement to a new kingdom.

There are a couple of particularly impressive juxtapositions: in one, Scorsese follows a funeral for a friend of the Dalai Lama’s, in which the deliberateness of the ritual also plays as a tribute to Tibet’s freedom, about to disappear with the coming of China. In another, as China’s threat becomes more concrete, we see pure cinematic expression as blood pours into a lake over a school of fish. Scorsese cuts to the Dalai Lama, and as the camera cranes above his head, we see countless dead monks around him. It’s dream imagery as a way to express the oncoming terror in the country, and it’s among Scorsese’s most spiritual, most emotional filmmaking.

So why isn’t Kundun widely regarded as one of Scorsese’s best films? With Kundun, Scorsese seems to veer more towards the kind of material that Godfrey Reggio might do, both in imagery and sound (see: Philip Glass score). The problem is that Scorsese is at his best as a narrative filmmaker – even his biggest departures in the past (New York, New York, The King of Comedy, After Hours, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Age of Innocence) have a stronger narrative spine than Kundun, which is largely shapeless in its middle section. Scorsese introduces the Dalai Lama as an awe-inspiring, almost magical figure as a boy, his typical childish selfishness notwithstanding. Scorsese occasionally engages the loneliness that comes with the Dalai Lama’s spiritual vocation, but the intense emotions that usually come with his characters don’t register.

It’s not helped with by the beatific performance Tenzin Thutthob Tsarong gives as the adult Dalai Lama, which is every bit the holy cipher that Scorsese avoided making Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ. The film’s middle section largely becomes a angel vs. devil story/biopic in which Mao Zedong comes off as a cardboard tyrant to the cardboard saint hero, with a simplistic politics vs. religion bent to boot. It’s clear that Scorsese and screenwriter Melissa Mathison have the utmost respect for the Dalai Lama, but they don’t seem to know what makes him tick, and they don’t present anything that might make us critical of him, like the question of whether he and the lamas ruled as kings over poor people (note to Dalai Lama admirers: I am agnostic on this issue).

The film picks up in the third act as Scorsese turns the man’s escape from Tibet into an abstract journey. But even as Scorsese and Deakins go to a beautiful final shot of the Dalai Lama looking through a telescope at the same Tibetan mountain, as if he’s looking through the mountain, I’m more moved by the imagery and the place than I am by the man. It’s hard to feel for him when we don’t understand him.

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

I also contribute to The Airspace, pretty terrific site by a bunch of smart people. Give it a look.

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.

Check out my account on
Letterboxd. There you can see my favorite films from any given year or decade, or just brief capsule reviews of whatever I’m watching in my spare time.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Director Spotlight #15.16: Martin Scorsese's Casino


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: 82/A-

It’s easy to see Casino as a Goodfellas rehash, given how many common elements the two have: Robert De Niro (in his most recent Scorsese collaboration) as a coolheaded criminal, Joe Pesci as a psychotic one, a rise-and-fall storyline following the mob, and a kinetic rush of a narrative. Here’s the thing: those elements still make for a pretty good movie, and there are more than enough differences to justify Casino’s existence. Where the earlier film emphasized the guilt and paranoia that comes with the downfall, Casino is a movie about how excess and greed leads to it.

1973: Sam “Ace” Rothstein (De Niro) is a brilliant sports handicapper working for the Chicago and Midwestern Mafia, and he’s sent to Las Vegas to essentially take over the Tangiers Casino. The group sends along Sam’s childhood friend, enforcer Nicholas “Nicky” Santoro (Joe Pesci), to protect him, but Nicky sees a chance to take over the whole town and become the de facto boss of Las Vegas. His exploits make things harder for Ace, and it doesn’t get any easier when Ace falls for Ginger (Sharon Stone), a beautiful hustler who’s still stuck on her sleazy pimp Lester Diamond (James Woods) even after she and Ace marry.

Casino takes the style of Goodfellas to its logical conclusion: it’s all mob hits, stabbings, shootings, domestic disputes, ins-and-outs of the criminal world, rushing narrative, and Joe Pesci swearing (it’s on the top five list of films with the most frequent use of the word “fuck”). Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker tie together the process and details of the casino game with the criminal process of Pesci’s world with aplomb, showing where they intersect (Ace catching a couple of card cheats and dragging them to the back, where a hammer and a table saw await) and where they diverge (Pesci stabbing someone in the throat with a pen for almost no reason), all without losing narrative drive. For a three hour movie, Casino barely seems to be an hour long, which says a lot for how fascinating Scorsese makes the world. The added playfulness in the narration (switching from De Niro to Pesci to, in a key moment, Frank Vincent) only helps.

He’s also aided by cinematographer Robert Richardson, who gives the film a different look than Goodfellas. Where the earlier film benefited from Michael Ballahus’s heavy use of shadows and lush color, Casino pops off the screen with the shiny, gaudy color and light of Las Vegas. This is a world of excess, and the way Richardson lights the sets and costumes only accentuates the beautiful tackiness. It’s even more effective when Scorsese and Richardson head out to the desert, the wide vistas and barren plains (reflected in De Niro’s sunglasses) showing what’s really out in Las Vegas beneath all of the greed: death.

The film is less performance-driven than Goodfellas, which is slightly to its detriment. It’s more process-oriented than emotion-oriented, and while De Niro and Pesci both put in very good work as the cold perfectionist Ace and the ambitious psycho kingpin Nicky, neither really surprise the way they had in the past. Still, they’re more than effective, and they’re aided by Sharon Stone in what’s likely the best performance of her career. Ginger represents a new female dynamic in a Scorsese film, a streetwise woman who knows how to get her way but who isn’t prepared for what living with a control-freak like Ace means: total lack of trust on both sides (even as Ace stresses how important it is), unlimited access to drugs and money but loss of privileges because of it. Ginger’s not a total victim: she’s a greedy character who’s more than willing to play with fire (see: sleeping with Nicky), but she’s the true tragic figure in the film.

The film’s tale of greed, hubris, and ego taking down powerful figures is a quintessential American story, one that Scorsese modeled specifically on Raoul Walsh’s classic The Roaring Twenties, with more than a few dashes of both Howard Hawks’s Scarface and Brian De Palma’s beautifully garish remake. There’s something exciting about the people at the center of this world, no matter how terrible their actions are (Michael Glover Smith's take on White City Cinema really hammers this home well).

Pesci’s early narration regarding how “we fucked it all up” establishes the mournful tone beneath all of the razzle-dazzle and blood. It’s a film about men who have and lose everything: Pesci goes from ambitious upstart to bloated, egotistical, coked-out mess that the bosses from back home are more than happy to take out. Ginger goes from hustler who can take it all to a woman who can’t handle it. Even Ace, who escapes Vegas after Nicky’s double-cross, winds up back where he started, living but hardly at the level he was once at, the score from Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt playing him out to a sad conclusion.

So what separates Casino not only from Goodfellas, but from its influences? To me, there’s a distinct parallel between Scorsese’s tale of Las Vegas and his own experiences as a member of the New Hollywood movement (albeit with fewer heads crushed in vices…maybe). Scorsese eats, sleeps, and breaths film just like Ace does gambling. They’re both perfectionists who often let relationships go to hell for the sake of their work – the scene where Ace bothers a cook for not putting enough blueberries in the muffins is a particularly nice touch on this count.

There’s a lot in Nicky’s ambitious outsider who doesn’t play by the rules that reminds me of Scorsese (as well as Francis Ford Coppola and Michael Cimino), from the increase in profile to the coked up excess of the later parts of the film. Here, Nicky trying to put together a new, more dangerous kind of Vegas is particularly nice, not to mention his complete lack of respect for authority (another New Hollywood trait). Even the time periods line up, with the 70s as a highpoints and the 80s as a megalomaniac’s comedown. Ace says that Nicky really changed out there, but didn’t they all? I’m not going to act like this is a key to unlock the puzzle- the film works with or without this information. But it’s a fascinating parallel, especially as Ace finishes talking about the corporations who took over the town and made it a less dangerous, less interesting place. “Today it looks like Disneyland.”

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

I also contribute to The Airspace, pretty terrific site by a bunch of smart people. Give it a look.

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, November 27, 2013

Crystal Fairy


Grade: 74/B+

It’s difficult to break out of typecasting, but Michael Cera might be playing it smart by riffing on his persona rather than totally changing it up. Years after playing the awkward nerdy teen of Arrested Development, Juno and Superbad, Cera first seemed to criticize the Michael Cera character’s terminal whininess and wimpiness in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World before playing a hilariously coked up horndog version of himself in this year’s This Is the End. Sebastían Silva’s comedy Crystal Fairy, recently released on Netflix Instant, was originally a side-project for Silva and Cera after the more expensive side project Magic Magic was delayed, but it gives Cera his best opportunity as a personality actor yet.

Jamie (Cera) is an American tourist in Chile tagging along with Champa, Pilo and Lel (Silva’s brothers Juan, José, and Agustín) on a trip to the edge of the desert to take a hallucinogen brewed from cactus. Jamie meets Crystal Fairy (Gaby Hoffman), an eccentric hippie, at a party and, in a drunken and high stupor, invites her to come along with the group. The next day, he barely remembers it, and his uptight nature clashes with her free spiritedness all the way.

Crystal Fairy is a very loose and shaggy comedy, but that makes sense for the journey these people are on, and it plays well to the improvisatory talents of the cast. Jamie’s single-minded focus on scoring drugs allows Cera to stretch as an actor, playing an often unlikable and self-centered protagonist so focused on one experience that he can’t appreciate the beautiful country around him. Hoffman is just as strong as the more benign but equally self-absorbed Crystal Fairy, whose insistence that everyone use magic pebbles in their drug brew and beer or reveal their deepest, darkest fears makes a perfect clash with Cera. The Silva Brothers, meanwhile, make for perfect straight men of superhuman patience.

Crystal Fairy, for all of her openness regarding nudity and personal beliefs, seems to use much of her hippy-dippy manic-pixie style as a way to deflect her actual fears, something that’s confirmed in the climactic campfire scene. The Big Reveal is more than a little contrived, and feels a bit programmatic compared to the rest of the film, but Hoffman and Cera act the hell out of it, and it ultimately makes for a satisfying arc for Jamie. Rather than being a story about one guy needing to loosen up, it’s a tale of judgment turning to understanding and empathy.

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

I also contribute to The Airspace, pretty terrific site by a bunch of smart people. Give it a look.

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.

Check out my account on
Letterboxd, where you can see my favorite films from any given year or decade, or just brief capsule reviews of whatever I’m watching in my spare time.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Pain & Gain


Grade: 45/C

I pick on Michael Bay a lot. That doesn’t make me too different from other cinephiles who find Bay’s in-your-face aesthetic grating and his alpha male sensibility a blight upon the medium. But what frustrates me about Bay is that beneath the more-is-more editing and explosions and the crass stupidity lies genuine talent. The man has an eye for beautiful images, and can do truly remarkable things with the camera on a moment-to-moment basis, but he drowns his gifts in gargantuanism. His most recent film, Pain & Gain, is his lowest-budgeted movie since 1995’s Bad Boys ($26 million to the earlier film’s $19 million), and it eschews a number of the problems that plagues his mega-budget efforts. Too bad it can’t get rid of all of them.

Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) is an ex-convict working as a trainer at Sun Gym. Lugo is ambitious: he professes to “believe in fitness”, but it isn’t enough to reach bodily perfection. He desires the high-class lifestyle of his rich clients. With fellow trainer Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and rehabilitated coke-addict Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) to kidnap condescending millionaire Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), force him to sign over his assets, and leave him for dead. The plan works, except for the last bit, and Kershaw hires private investigator Ed Du Bois, III (Ed Harris) to get his money back. But he’ll barely even have to nudge the three, as they start to fall apart amidst greed, excess, and addiction.

Pain & Gain is Bay’s most performance-driven film. Wahlberg and Mackie throw themselves into their immensely unlikable characters without a hint of vanity (aside from the characters’ vanity, of course), and Johnson lends much-needed sincerity to Paul’s struggles with addiction and childlike faith. It’s actually kind of remarkable that one gets a sense of performance in a Bay film at all, considering how often he chops his scenes to ribbons, but he goes relatively easy on the editing pyrotechnics. And for once, his emphasis on glistening bodies and sleek surfaces makes sense, given the crass materialism meatheaded nature of the world he’s in.

But while Bay’s aesthetic is put to better use than usual in Pain & Gain, he still has the same juvenile sense of humor and penchant for self-indulgence that he’s always had: toilet and dildo jokes abound, and women are still fall in the Madonna or whore categories (with Rebel Wilson going from the latter to the former as Mackie’s plus-sized conquest turned put-upon wife). And while the film aims for satire, its humor is too broad, its tone too smarmy for Bay’s criticism of alpha males and the American Dream to come off as anything but disingenuous.

Bay likely does see the greed and hypocrisy of Lugo and company (who criticize Shalhoub’s character for being a crook), but the comedown is too peppered with cheap jokes and celebration of their stupidity for it to work. It’s like Fargo or Goodfellas reimagined by a guy who doesn’t buy into the “morality” part of the morality tale. This is the closest thing to a good Michael Bay film in some time. That’s not good enough.

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

I also contribute to The Airspace, pretty terrific site by a bunch of smart people. Give it a look.

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.

Check out my account on
Letterboxd, where you can see my favorite films from any given year or decade, or just brief capsule reviews of whatever I’m watching in my spare time.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Director Spotlight #15.15: Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence


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: 96/A

Martin Scorsese’s career is filled with departures and experiments, but few more radical than The Age of Innocence. After following up his gangster masterpiece Goodfellas with the wildly successful remake of Cape Fear, the film couldn’t have seemed more atypical: classical in style, and without any of the blood and violence of his more famous films, it’s easy to see why many balked. But the film is very much of a piece with Goodfellas and Raging Bull in its portrayal of a restrictive society, a self-hating protagonist, and of deep guilt and heightened emotions. Scorsese made plenty of great movies, but this is one of his greatest.

Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a successful young lawyer in 1870s New York, engaged to socialite May Welland (Winona Ryder). May’s cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), returns from abroad planning to divorce her philandering husband. Her family and the rest of New York looks upon it as scandal, but Newland is sympathetic to her plight, and he grows closer to Ellen, whose passion outshines May’s blind obeisance to convention. The two fall in love, but they face a predicament: fulfill their passion and become social outcasts, or pine for each other in secret.

Any fear that The Age of Innocence will follow in the tradition of staid period pieces disappears with the opening credits. Saul Bass’s suggestive sequence of blossoming flowers couples with Elmer Bernstein’s gorgeous, melancholy score. Before the story even starts, it’s a film suffused with conflict, beautiful images and music coupled with a sense of loss and longing.

The film that follows doesn’t disappoint: this is some of Scorsese’s most passionate filmmaking. Michael Ballhaus’s cinematography is just as lively and mobile as ever, its tracking shot through an old-fashioned ballroom serving as a tribute to Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons (complete with Joanne Woodward’s narration serving a similar purpose to Welles’s). And the film’s opening scene is glorious, with the heightened, stylized romance and pain of opera juxtaposed with a society that won’t allow for anything that expressive. And then there’s the moment where Newland first meets Ellen: where we see shadows over the faces of May and the rest of the group, when the camera pans to Ellen, the light slightly brightens, as if she’s brought light to his heart.

Scorsese luxuriates in the opulence of the décor and costumes, showing how seductive it can be for all of its emotional destruction. He also uses color as a commentary on character and action: when Ellen moves toward Newland in a key scene, she’s dressed in bright red, as opposed to the more traditional whites that May wears. When Ellen is tormented by her unhappy marriage, the frame flashes a bright red; when she’s charmed by Newland selling yellow roses, it flashes bright, passionate yellow (both of these are tributes to Michael Powell’s Black Narcissus).

This is all more florid than most modern period pieces, and that’s because Scorsese is more influenced by the melodramas of the past: the works of William Wyler, Michael Powell, Douglas Sirk and Max Ophüls. For all of their prettiness, these were films of deep emotional turmoil and repression. Scorsese couples this with heavy use of shadows a la The Godfather whenever he goes to backroom dealings between Newland and those who discourage his passion. These people aren’t gangsters, but they’re framed like gangsters, and with reason. Scorsese referred to it as his most violent film, not for blood and guts, but for emotional violence. It serves as a perfect corollary to Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (another major influence): it may not be as viscerally upsetting as past works, but we’re dealing with the destruction of the soul. They might as well be Michael Corleone.

The milieu of The Age of Innocence is just as filled with thugs and controlling monsters anyway, with Miriam Margolyes as a virtual Don to the classic New York world. But perhaps the most surprising one is May, played in a quietly virtuosic performance by Ryder. At first glance, May is girlish and naïve, completely unable to think for herself or go against convention. But Ryder’s every slight change in expression communicates volumes as she quietly manipulates Newland, whether she’s asking him to stay in or convincing him to stay in the country when she secretly knows he plans to leave with Ellen. She’s not an unempathetic character – she stands to lose everything and be a party to scandal if Newland leaves her, and she does ultimately take pity on him – but she’s also far cannier than she appears. It’s a shame Ryder’s career has taken a downturn in the past decade when The Age of Innocence shows what she’s really capable of.

Equally strong are Pfeiffer (in one of her last great performances) and Day-Lewis (in perhaps his quietest). As Ellen, Pfeiffer is every bit the passionate, unfettered soul that Newland views her to be, but she’s more than just an object of longing. Her desire for independence and happiness is admirable in an era of great constriction, and it’s all the more affecting when she can’t break free of it, the heaviness of the world gradually weighing her down. Day-Lewis is best known for his wildly expressive, floridly charismatic turns in recent years, but he’s nearly as good at playing a man who can’t express himself. What’s striking about his work here is how he suggests the roiling emotions beneath a calm exterior, showing a man who’s so bottled up with pain and yearning that he’s about to burst.

The scenes between the two are remarkable for the gamut of emotions they go through: first charm, as Ellen is everything the rest of the world is not, and symbolizes the freedom that Newland secretly wishes for. Then, when the two finally do make their feelings for each other clear, deep conflict: their furtive kisses and embraces behind closed doors sexier and more romantic than most sex scenes. The slightest contact with each other means the world, and I’m still chilled to the bone by the scene where Newland lays his head upon Ellen’s lap as she puts her hands upon him, both so close yet unable to consummate their love. Just as gorgeous is the unbuttoning of Ellen’s glove in a later scene, with a kiss of the wrist being just about the only thing the two can manage. And then there’s the later scenes of the two trying to hide their gazes at each other, barely holding back their desire and banked frustration.

Scorsese understands those feelings better than most, having grown up in a community where showing any signs of weakness or breaking apart from fiercely held tradition meant being ostracized. Newland is of apiece not only with Henry Hill or Charlie Cappa, who must follow the dictates of their societies to move up, but of Jake La Motta, filled with self-loathing. He has empathy for Ellen’s situation even before he falls for her, believing society’s punishment of her for her husband’s transgressions to be unfair. A scene where Newland and May tour a zoo, filled with exotic animals in cages, is a sly bit of commentary on Newland’s own situation: he’s been domesticized, and while it’s comfortable, it’s not true. And Newland only allows his anger and passion to boil over a few times. He’s otherwise a man totally controlled by the cruelty of his world. Even when there’s hope, the world (and the framing) closes in on him.

When it finally is revealed that May knew of Newland’s feelings, that she “asked” him to give up the one thing he wanted most, Newland remarks that she “didn’t ask”, but she didn’t need to. He was too willing to fall in line and to give up, and that regret gives the final scene, one of the finest in Scorsese’s oeuvre, its emotional power. Newland’s son has arranged a meeting with Ellen, a chance to reunite with his love now that May has passed, but he knows it’s too late to recapture the past, and that Ellen will understand: “Just say I’m old-fashioned.” He might be open to ideas of freedom and independence, but he can’t follow them himself.

Scorsese cuts that final scene perfectly: the silent pain on Newland’s face, the flash of light from the window giving us a brief flash back to Newland’s day at the pier with Ellen, a fantasy of what might have been had either of them been brave enough before the screen flashes yellow. Newland seems to flinch at the very thought of it, and the windows close, leaving him out forever. The cut to a wide shot as he accepts this devastates me. I want to tell Newland to turn around, to not walk into the distance, but he’s already on his way. And as Scorsese lingers on the scene shortly after he disappears on the left side of the frame, as the world moves on as if he had never been there and Bernstein’s score swells, you can practically hear the sound of hearts being torn out. 

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

I also contribute to The Airspace, pretty terrific site by a bunch of smart people. Give it a look.

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.

Check out my account on Letterboxd to get a look at my favorite films from various years and whatever I’ve watched in my spare time.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Director Spotlight #15.14: Martin Scorsese's Cape Fear


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: 57/B-

The best kind of remakes are reimaginings, and to Martin Scorsese’s credit, that’s what he sought to do with 1991’s Cape Fear. Pitched to Scorsese by his friend Steven Spielberg as a way for one of his films to make a profit, the director decided to take the 1962 minor classic and revamp it as a florid Hitchcock tribute, complete with a total revamp of the family dynamic to better suit Scorsese’s thematic interests. But the film’s execution isn’t completely on point, and by the end it flies completely off the rails.

Max Cady (Robert De Niro) has just been released from prison for the rape and battery of a young woman, and he has it out for his former lawyer, Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte). Sam has relocated from Atlanta to the small town of New Essex, North Carolina with his wife Leigh (Jessica Lange) and teenaged daughter Dani (Juliette Lewis), but the family isn’t as happy as it seems. As Cady terrorizes the Bowdens, he brings out their deep-seated resentment of one another.

Cape Fear is notable for how far Scorsese goes in the opposite direction of the low-key original. Where the 1962 version made everything implicit, this version is wildly over-the-top at almost every turn. Scorsese seems to have envisioned the film as Alfred Hitchcock by way of Oliver Stone- the first shots of Cady working out before he’s released, walking up to a wide angle lens are great, but when Scorsese keeps the same excessive style in the early scenes with the family (see: Cady under a sky of fireworks, florid camerawork during Nolte/Lange’s love scene), it can’t help but feel like he’s trying to hard to unnerve us.

Really, the film is more effective in its quieter moments. Nolte realizes a piano wire is missing, and while there’s no reason for him to think that there’s something amiss, we can’t help but wait for the other shoe to drop. Even better is the use of a teddy bear connected to wire during a stakeout, where the slightest movement makes us prepare for the worst. It’s a red herring, but that doesn’t change how nerve-wracking the tension is in that scene.

Still, Cape Fear feels wildly uneven, in no small part because of the cast. There’s a number of memorable supporting turns, both from the stars of the original making quick appearances (Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, Martin Balsam) and especially Ileana Douglas as a lawyer who’s infatuated with Sam and Joe Don Baker as a shady private eye. But two of the major characters are badly miscast: Nolte makes for an overblown and blustery Sam, and Lange gives a rare terrible performance (maybe the worst in a Scorsese movie) as Leigh, whose mental health issues are telegraphed with every gesture and glance she makes. She’s going for depressive and mostly just seems insane.

Still, De Niro’s Cady is another terrific creation, his sing-songy southern cadence barely hiding the fury beneath his voice. It’s a big performance, but he grounds his leeriness and intimidation with a terrifying sense of righteousness in his actions. Cady reveals that he was raped in prison, and rather than taking into consideration his own horrific actions, he responds by getting religion and bringing fire and brimstone-style vengeance. He’s even better when playing off of Douglas or Lewis, preying on their weaknesses (jealousy and teenage insecurity, repsectively) like the scariest sexual predator in the world.

It’s a bit shocking to see how terrible most of Juliette Lewis’s performances from the mid-90s onward are, considering how natural and unaffected she is here (especially compared to the Act-Off Nolte and Lange are having). The film’s best scene, by a considerable margin, is between her and De Niro in her school’s theater. Scorsese calms down on the pyrotechnics here, using low lighting and claustrophobic framing to heighten the tension, and Dani’s youthful bashfulness at Cady’s clear advances (combined with fake concern and non-judgment) only escalates the creep-factor. And that’s before Cady’s come-ons lead to actual contact (see: sticking his thumb in her mouth, audience gaping in horror). Lewis plays the scene with a combination of willingness and fear that’s both disarming and frightening at the same time.

Scorsese reportedly wasn’t interested in Cape Fear unless he could make the family unhappy, the heroes morally murky. That’s effective in the first half, as Cady stresses Sam’s betrayal of his lawful duties and we learn more about his past infidelities. There’s a scene where Cady references from the Book of Job,  a tale of a man who had to go through hell to reach salvation. He’s referring to his own difficulties in jail, but it could just as easily refer to how the Bowdens have to go through hell to see their care for each other restored.

Pity that Wesley Strick’s script is so schlocky. It’s not just that a number of the more explicit scenes of sexual violence come close to seeming needlessly icky and exploitative (something Strick would repeat to worse effect in the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street). It’s that the film essentially devolves to a bad horror movie in the final twenty minutes, with Cady going from a measured creepiness to a standard unstoppable villain, but with extra crazy as De Niro goes right over the top with the rest of the film. At a certain point (probably when burning De Niro and putting the final scene in the middle of a bombastic effects-driven storm sequence), the film stops being scary and starts being silly.

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Check out my account on
Letterboxd. There you can see my favorite films from any given year or decade, or just brief capsule reviews of whatever I’m watching in my spare time.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Computer Chess


Grade: 89/A-

Andrew Bujalski has to be one of the most bizarre cinematic innovators of all time. In 2002, with his debut film Funny Ha Ha, Bujalski redefined lo-fi with 16mm stock, seemingly-improvised, wonderfully awkward scenes, and a slice of life structure, giving birth to the mumblecore movement. Bujalski stayed within the movement for his next two films, Mutual Appreciation and Beeswax, but his latest film, Computer Chess, is a new beast altogether. Shot on a 1969 Sony video camera, Computer Chess looks and feels quite unlike anything put on screen before. It is almost certainly the year’s strangest film, but also one of its most fascinating.

The film takes place in the early 1980s at a small hotel, where groups of programmers from colleges around the country gather every year for a computer chess programming competition. Their programs play each other’s programs, with the winning team earning $7,500 and a chance to play judge and chess wizard Pat Henderson (film critic/scholar Gerald Peary).

The competitors all face different trials and tribulations at the hotel. The Cal Tech team, whose previous machine won the year before, finds their program inexplicably choosing suicidal chess moves during matches. One of their players, Peter (Patrick Reister), deals with his awkwardness and inability to communicate with other people. MIT programmer Shelly (Robin Schwartz) deals with being the only woman at a gathering of socially awkward young men. And arrogant independent programmer Michael Papageorge (Myles Paige) finds himself without a room to stay in, unless he wants to take one with a shitload of cats in it.

One could broadly call Computer Chess a sort of Dazed and Confused for nerds ( Wiley Wiggins, Dazed’s Mitch, plays a supporting role). Both films have a discursive nature, both are ensemble-driven, and both are funny but more thoughtful than they might appear at first glance. But that doesn’t do an adequate job of describing how weird the film is. Bujalski takes the film down many roads and tributaries filled with halting conversations and characters theorizing about the future of artificial intelligence- whether we influence it or it influences us. And that’s before the surreal sci-fi elements start to pop up, including a question of what, exactly, is causing Cal Tech’s computer to act up.

Yet the film’s constant strangeness is inviting rather than alienating (at least for more adventurous audience members). Bujalski’s formal experimentation yields a project that feels like a time capsule, a forgotten tape of a particularly odd weekend with the brightest and most awkward minds of the early digital age. The way the characters fail to relate to each other is both consistently funny (especially when a new age-y group arrives and starts interacting with some of the least comfortable programmers) and poignant in the way it captures how the socially awkward (and likely Asperger’s-afflicted) failed to interact as they developed technology that would both facilitate and break down communication. There’s nothing like Computer Chess coming around again anytime soon, and that makes it essential.

This film is available on Netflix Instant.

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

I also contribute to The Airspace, pretty terrific site by a bunch of smart people. Give it a look.

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.

All Is Lost


Grade: 93/A

Few American films this year are as audacious as All Is Lost, and even fewer are as thrilling. The sophomore effort by Margin Call writer-director J.C. Chandor, All Is Lost takes the survival film down to an elemental level. It’s a far cry not only from Chandor’s previous film Margin Call, a dialogue and explanation-heavy look at the 2008 financial meltdown, but from the other films of its kind this year (Gravity, Captain Phillips), both of which provide backstory where All Is Lost does not. It’s the most challenging of the three, and the most rewarding.

Robert Redford is the hero and only character in All Is Lost, referred to only as “Our Man” in the credits. Redford, living on his sailboat The Virginia Jean in the Indian Ocean, wakes one morning to find a shipping container (presumably dropped by a carrier) has torn through his hull. Redford hurries to pump out the water and patch the hole so he can be rescued, but his radio and navigational system was damaged by the water, and his work will only last so long. Soon, he faces storms, unsteady waters, and dwindling food and drinking water, among other hardships. Our Man is adaptable, but there’s only so much a man can adapt before he’s defeated.

There is very little dialogue in All Is Lost: an opening letter of apologies that’s clearly addressed to loved ones but reveals no backstory, an unsuccessful distress call on the radio, and a few exclamations. Yet this is clearly the work of the same director who made Margin Call- it’s just as focused on process, arguably more important here than it was in the previous film. There’s not a shot, not a sound, not an action wasted in the film, as Chandor spends the whole time focused on the details of Redford’s struggle.

The framing of the film is masterful, often focusing only on whatever part of Redford matters the most in the scene (the hands as they whittle a makeshift handle for the pump, the legs as he climbs his sail, the back as it strains under all of the work). It gives every moment purpose, and gives weight the more harrowing set-pieces, like the boat being tipped upside-down by a storm, or Redford’s eventual abandonment of the boat for a life raft that’s clearly not going to keep him safe for too long.

Chandor’s use of sound is equally exquisite- at every moment, we are hyperaware of every creak, of every change above and below water, of every sound of thunder in the distance, for what doom it might spell for Our Man. The spare use of Alex Ebert’s score is just as effective, as it plays like a foghorn requiem, like an old flute that’s playing its last tune.

And it might well be the last tune for Our Man, played with intense focus and utility by Redford in what might be the best work of his career. The film likely could have worked with a lesser-known actor in the role, but Redford gives it another dimension. We see one of the last great movie stars stripped of his strength, of his class, and, now at 77 years old, of his once-youthful good looks. It’s easy enough to believe that Our Man is capable of doing the arduous tasks at hand, but they also clearly take a toll on his body, already worn down by age and lord knows what other hardships before the sea, the sun, and the salt take their toll. Great performances are borne not of words, but of action, and Redford’s single-minded struggle to live is more than enough to keep us invested in his survival.

The bone-deep exhaustion of the character isn’t just external, but internal. What’s revealed about the character’s past is vague, but it’s enough to show that he has regrets, pains, and that he’s not ready to let go. Whether he has any choice in that matter or not is hard to say, but it shows Chandor’s continued intelligence regarding how we deal with impending disaster. All Is Lost is brave not only for its forgoing basic dramatic conventions or for rooting us in the particulars of a man’s struggle, but also for showing how we deal with the inevitability of death, whether it’s to come now or a little later.

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

I also contribute to The Airspace, pretty terrific site by a bunch of smart people. Give it a look.

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
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Thursday, November 7, 2013

Director Spotlight #15.13: Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas


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

Martin Scorsese has made plenty of great movies, but few as formally and viscerally exciting as Goodfellas. The 1990 gangster film is one of the most culturally significant films of the past several decades, both for its vast influence over film and television (Boogie Nights and The Sopranos couldn’t exist without it), but for bringing Scorsese back to the top of his game. Certainly the director’s work in the 80s was exciting and worthwhile, but after Goodfellas, it was undeniable that he was the greatest of all working American director. Oh, sure, Dances with Wolves won the Oscar, but it’s Goodfellas that inspired more people to become directors than just about any other film of its time.

“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) grew up admiring the mobsters next door, and in his adulthood, he became one of them. Over the course of three decades, Henry goes from working-class kid to successful crook in the Lucchese crime family under capo Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino). He and his friends, coolly violent Jimmy “The Gent” Conway (Robert De Niro) and psychotic Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), make the bigtime. Henry also marries Karen (Lorraine Bracco), a Jewish woman attracted to his lavish lifestyle and charm. But there’s only so long one can stay at the top before the violence of the lifestyle becomes overpowering, and when Henry and his friends get into drugs, it threatens to send them crashing down.

First thing’s first: Goodfellas is bar none the best-edited movie of all time. Scorsese envisioned the film as a 2 ½ hour trailer, and the film plays like a ganster movie directed by a caffeinated French New Wave-acolyte (indeed, Truffaut’s Jules and Jim was a major influence). The film moves beautifully, rushing through Henry’s teenage indoctrination in the mob thoroughly but quickly- it takes twelve minutes, but it feels like two, and we learn everything we need to about how the mob represented a way out of working-class life.

Better yet is the seductive pull of the rest of the film’s first two hours, which fluidly transitions between the see the ins-and-outs of the life (Scorsese and screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi’s perfectionism is at its best here), the perks, and just about the best cinematic food porn ever. Scorsese throws in just about every editing trick he knows- whip pans, freeze frames, quick cuts, you name it. The spectacular pop soundtrack (everyone from Tony Bennett to The Crystals) only help make it more seductive, and Liotta’s narration only further helps explain the rules and the attraction of the lifestyle. But Scorsese punctuates it all with brutal violence that shows how Henry’s in over his head, and that at any moment, it could all end.

Goodfellas is also the best showcase yet for what Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus are capable of when they work together. Much has been made of the legendary Copacabana tracking shot, where Henry and Karen enter through the underground backdoor and the shot shows the whole world ahead of the two. But equally impressive are the slow zooms and pushes in the famous Billy Batts scene, which bring a certain unease to the audience just before all hell breaks loose and Tommy kills a made man. I’m also particularly fond of a dolly-zoom in a late film diner scene between Henry and Jimmy- before Henry even realizes that Jimmy is planning to have him killed, we know that there’s something terribly wrong with the scene, and that Henry has to get out of the life as soon as possible.

Goodfellas also has one of the best casts Scorsese ever assembled, where every bit part is memorable (Catherine Scorsese as Tommy’s mother, Chuck Low as the ball-busting Morrie, Michael Imperioli as some poor kid who pisses off Tommy). Scorsese has a penchant for letting his actors improvise in rehearsal and then rewriting the scene to include their best additions. The actors all take to it perfectly, whether it’s Sorvino as the cold Paulie or De Niro as the increasingly paranoid Jimmy.

Ray Liotta was best known for his livewire performance in Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild (another influence), but he never saw a better showcase for his talents than in Goodfellas. As Henry, Liotta is a weasel amidst wolves, a man who wants all the perks of the gangster lifestyle but doesn’t have the stomach for the bloodier aspects. Oh, sure, he’s not afraid to rough someone up, and he’s willing to live with the worst parts of his job if it means he’s accepted by his friends and he’s treated like an important man. But the look on Liotta’s face whenever it’s clear someone is going to die is one of fear. When he and his friends spend some time with Tommy’s mother after they whack Billy Batts, it’s key that Henry is quiet where the other two are more than willing to chat. When Imperioli is shot by Tommy, most of the gangsters treat it as an irritation, where Henry sees just how quickly it could all end.

The fear is even greater with Karen, played with real fire by Bracco. The life is just as seductive to her, but she sees how things can go wrong even more clearly than Henry. There are no outsiders, and when Henry is taken to jail, she becomes an outsider, someone with no friends and no one to help her. What’s worse, she becomes not just complicit with Henry’s actions, but a victim of his entitlement, as he cheats on her. She’s also a tragic character- in a better world, the two would just divorce (as they did eventually when they went in the Witness Protection Program). But Paulie and Jimmy give Henry a talk, the two are forced back together, and she’s dragged into addiction right alongside Henry.

But the highlight performance of the film, almost without question, is Joe Pesci as Tommy DeVito. The real character was burly rather than diminutive like Pesci, but the change serves the character. Played by Pesci, Tommy’s a short, not physically imposing guy with a funny voice, and that gives him “too much to prove”. Every insult is a big deal, every slight a reason to kill someone. When the famous “How am I funny?” scene comes around, Scorsese places us right at the table like we’re one of the wise guys, forcing us to watch in horror as he seems about a step away from murdering Henry before he finally reveals he’s just fucking with him. It’s hilarious, but it’s also a sign that this guy is capable of anything. So when Billy Batts is killed for referencing his shoeshine boy past and Spider is shot for telling him to go fuck himself, it’s shocking, but wholly believable.

As things go on, the violence gets rougher, the pleasures of the gangster life more meager. It’s notable that we don’t actually see the famous Lufthansa Heist, but instead see its aftermath. Jimmy has grown more paranoid and more controlling, and rather than turn money over to the people who helped him or risk getting caught, better to whack them. The “Layla” sequence is brilliant not just for how beautifully cinematic it is, but for how the melancholy of the song underscores how things are falling apart for Henry and company. Henry says that he doesn’t care, but as they start “finding bodies all over”, it’s clear that Henry knows there’s only so much he can trust Jimmy. That feeling gets even worse after Tommy is whacked- it’s not just that their best friend is dead, but now they’ll never be part of the mob’s inner-circle (Tommy was the only one who was 100% Italian).

Now comes one of the two or three best sequences Scorsese ever directed, where the pull of the first two films gearshifts into a nervy, cocaine paranoia-fueled rhythm. The way Scorsese plays with jump cuts (often several in a row), whip pans, Steadicam rushes, and a layered soundtrack (“Jump Into the Fire” leads into “Memo from Turner” which leads into “Magic Bus”…) throws us into the same paranoia and panic that Henry is in. It’s an exhilarating scene (likely informed by Scorsese’s own past problems with cocaine), and when it reaches its peak and Henry’s paranoia is justified, the good times are over. Now that paranoia takes over the film for good, whether we’re with Karen as Jimmy (probably) tries to have her killed or we’re with Henry and Jimmy definitely tries to set up a hit.

Scorsese’s films are about guilt, about men pulled at by all sides. Here, Henry does feel guilt over the horrible things he’s been involved in, and that he’s doomed his family to looking over their shoulders for the rest of their lives. But he’s also guilty over betraying his friends, over being permanently thrown out of the family he was in, and that he doesn’t have the same privileges he had.

The end of the film is best remembered for that brilliant moment where Henry breaks the fourth wall and addresses the camera, making the narration part of the dialogue and furthering the idea that we’re complicit with his crimes. But it’s just as notable for those zooms on Paulie and Jimmy’s faces as Henry identifies them, for the heartbroken look on Jimmy’s wife’s face, and for the shot of Pesci (in a tribute to The Great Train Robbery) shooting at the camera, implying the betrayal that whole world feels. He’s lost everything, he doesn’t have a clear conscience, and he has to wait around like everyone else. “I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.”

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

I also contribute to The Airspace, pretty terrific site by a bunch of smart people. Give it a look.

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.