Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street


 Grade: 95/A

There’s a scene in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita in which a drunken Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) encourages the members of his party to engage in an orgy with Nadia (Nadia Gray) before they come up with an even crazier idea, as they stick pillow feathers to a half-naked woman. The sequence marked the apex of the film’s depiction of decadence, of Marcello’s soul-destroying behavior, and of a bacchanalian world.

Martin Scorsese has cited Fellini as an influence in the past, but The Wolf of Wall Street might take that influence to its most extreme level, extending Fellini’s finale to feature-length. The film follows very much in the style of Goodfellas and especially Casino, another film about excess, but the men in those films look positively restrained in their behavior compared to the stock market thugs here. It’s a film about being stuck in an amoral mindset, one where hurting people is just a stepping stone to indulging in an insatiable appetite. It’s capitalism at its crassest, most disgusting, and most fascinating.

The film is based off the story and autobiography of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), an aspiring stockbroker and a hell of a salesman. When his first boss, Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), encourages him to “move the client’s money into your pocket” and indulge in as much cocaine, hookers, and masturbation as he can stomach, he’s ready to meet the challenge. But just as he gets his stockbroker license, Black Monday hits, and he’s out of a job.

Belfort moves to a smaller firm where he can get a 50% commission selling penny stocks, and winds up taking the game to a new level as he and his troops (P.J. Byrne, Kenneth Choi, Ethan Suplee, Brian Sacca, Martin Klebba, and Jonah Hill as his even more amoral right-hand man Donnie Azoff) defraud countless Americans out of the money as they earn millions a day. Now, they can do as many drugs and buy as many women as they want, but as their habits get out of control and they rip off more people, FBI Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) starts closing in on Belfort and company.

The Wolf of Wall Street has been met with more slightly more polarizing responses than one might expect, but that should be seen as encouraging rather than forbidding. Many of Scorsese’s best films have been met with equal degrees criticism as acclaim: Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, and Goodfellas have all been received both as masterpieces and as disgusting depictions of repellent, sometimes violent men with no redeeming value (and that’s nothing to say of the firestorm that greeted The Last Temptation of Christ). It’s inspiring that the director can make a film that’s as controversial and potentially alienating as it is formally exciting.

And formally exciting it is. Scorsese throws out all of the stops in The Wolf of Wall Street: freeze frames on tossed dwarves, long tracking shots through crowds of chanting brokers, tight close-ups on heavy drug use, slow motion scenes of DiCaprio and Hill strung out on qualuudes, and enough fourth-wall breaking narration from DiCaprio to make us as charmed and fascinated by Belford as we are disgusted by him. At just a minute shy of three hours (and a minute over Casino to be his longest narrative feature), The Wolf of Wall Street is almost exhausting, but Scorsese makes it gloriously excessive and exhausting with some of his most vibrant filmmaking in years. We’re on sensory overload here for a world of sensory overload.

That said, Scorsese is also still one of the best directors of actors alive, and he’s assembled one hell of an ensemble here. All of the brokers are enjoyably unethical and sleazy, and there’s great supporting turns from Jean Dujardin (as an unscrupulous Swiss banker), Jon Bernthal (as Belfort’s drug dealer buddy), Rob Reiner (as Belfort’s eternally apoplectic father), and especially McConaughey in a five-minute turn that’ll rank as one of the great cinematic one-scene wonders. Australian actress Margot Robbie is particularly memorable as Belfort’s second wife Naomi, a trophy wife who’s first turned on, then wearied by her husband’s behavior.

The standout supporting performance comes from Hill, whose improvisational gifts get their best test here and help add to what’s the blackest and funniest comedy of the year (the guiltiest laugh I’ve had all year comes from his line about what he’d do with if he had a mentally retarded kid). As Donnie, a Jewish guy who’s tried to look as WASPy as possible (shiny choppers, horn-rimmed glasses, sweater combinations), he does whatever he can to match his boss’s debauchery. He’s an unpredictable presence, the one guy in the movie who might be a little too weird even for someone as depraved as Jordan Belfort.

Gangs of New York aside, DiCaprio’s collaboration with Scorsese has yielded some of his best work, but he tops himself as Belfort, the Crazy Glue that holds the movie together. DiCaprio’s previous films with Scorsese often saw him as a man pulled at all sides, ready to fall apart at any moment. Wolf sees that, but it also mixes in the charm he showed in Titanic, Catch Me if You Can, and the early parts of The Aviator with a newer, more deranged side that’s as funny as it is unsettling.  The monologues he gives to his disciples could serve as a Bible for future Gordon Gekko wannabe douchebags, a portrait of the most undisciplined side of the American Dream. And that’s not even taking into account the actor’s previously untapped comedic gifts, which culminate in a physical slapstick scene involving some particularly potent Quaaludes that’ll likely go down as the funniest scene in Scorsese’s oeuvre.

There’s a lingering question of what Scorsese wants us to think of all of these creeps, with some of the film’s detractors suggesting that he’s made this world attractive. That might depend on one’s perspective of whether the endless parties, fuckfests and drug benders look like a personal heaven or hell. But it’s Scorsese’s lack of moralism that makes The Wolf of Wall Street work. He trusts us to find Belfort and his cronies to be the self-serving schmucks that they are, and to see how Belfort’s downfall comes with relative unrepentance, a view that he went out and achieved while the poor couldn’t hack it, a view that’s enabled by the government’s treatment of him. Sure, he and many of his contemporaries went to prison, but they’re still rich, and they’re still selling their view to the world. We’re the suckers who still buy it.

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Monday, December 23, 2013

American Hustle


Grade: 61/B-

I’m a little bit worried about David O. Russell. Sure, the director has come back from his creative and emotional burnout after his still absurdly underrated I Heart Huckabees, and his past couple of films, The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, both show that it’s possible to go mainstream and still stay idiosyncratic. But now comes American Hustle, Russell’s latest in a bid to make himself a bit more palatable, and while it still feels like a David O. Russell film in parts, it also feels like he’s trying to be a lot of different directors at once. It changes what it wants to be at a moment’s notice, making it the director’s weakest effort to date.

Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a New York businessman and con man. His partner and mistress, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), poses as an English Lady with banking connections to help him. When they’re caught by FBI Agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), they agree to help him with a con of his own: entrapping other con men, and, as the job gets bigger, a group of politicians and mobsters, in a job known as Abscam (because of the involvement of a fake “sheik” who. The job gets complicated as Richie grows power mad, Irving develops a friendship with the semi-corrupt but idealistic Mayor of Camden, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), Sydney starts to play Richie before possibly falling for him, and Irving’s unpredictable wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), gets involved and threatens to take them all down.

Russell’s films are defined by conflicting unstable personalities, all trying to redefine themselves in some way or another, and watching their plans go to hell. Here he benefits from a controlled performance from Christian Bale, a Big Character on the surface and a careful, deeply unsatisfied and (when Renner’s supremely decent politician takes him on as a friend) guilt-ridden. Adams is also good as Sydney, who has to keep reinventing herself to stay above it all.

The film is at its most interesting, however, than when they’re clashing with Cooper and Lawrence. To some degree I can see bits of Russell himself in both Bale (wild guy trying to make himself respectable after his career goes wrong) and Cooper (egotistical, unstable man with a hell of a complicated plan). Cooper is never better than when paired with Russell, who channels his comedic gifts here into playing someone much less charming than Pat of Silving Linings Playbook, someone who’s willing to get everyone else killed in order to accomplish something great. His Silver Linings co-star Lawrence is even better as the most haywire character in the movie, someone who’s not a totally bad person but who acts before she thinks and is equally ready as Cooper to see everyone else fall.

In addition to the five stars, American Hustle features memorable supporting turns from Louis CK (as DiMaso’s frustrated superior), Alessandro Nivola (as another), Michael Peña (as an FBI agent posing as the sheik), and, in a funny self-aware cameo, Robert De Niro as a gangster who makes the whole operation much more dangerous. Russell’s personality is most evident in his direction of the actors, and the film has plenty of indelible moments because of it.

But those moments don’t really add up to anything. Russell feels present in the characters, but the actual con man plot and 70s setting feels less distinctive, like he’s trying to remake The Sting in the setting of Goodfellas without doing anything else new with them. Russell reworked Eric Warren Singer’s script (which was on 2010’s Black List of best unproduced screenplays), and it feels like he’s mostly interested in the story on insofar as he can use it as connective tissue for a lot of bigger personalities. The film never really takes off because of it, feeling like a lot of great scenes and Oscar clips linked by an overly familiar throughline. It’s in search of real direction and momentum aside from a self-conscious and distracting sense of importance.

Russell’s best work (Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees) was purposefully messy, a lot of off-kilter rhythms that somehow coalesced as a form of organized chaos. This is mostly just messy. His past work was willing to alienate in order to get to a greater truth. The Goodfellas/Sting framework here feels timid and hollow by comparison. Rusell said in a recent interview that all of his previous work was leading up to this point. If American Hustle is any indication, that feels more ominous than promising.

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 lists of favorite films from any given year or decade, or just brief capsule reviews of whatever I’m watching in my spare time.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Overlooked Gems #61: C.O.G.


Grade: 76/B+

It’s strange that no one tried to adapt David Sedaris for the screen before C.O.G., but then, the tone that makes Sedaris such a great writer and humorist – snarky but never smug, self-deprecating but still deeply personal – is hard to get right. It’s easy to see how C.O.G. could have stepped wrong into judging the oddballs that make up its supporting cast, but writer-director Kyle Patrick Alvarez nails it, making a film that’s both uncommonly sensitive and consistently funny.

Jonathan Groff (best known for the hit musical Spring Awakening and a stint on Glee) stars as Sedaris-surrogate David, a Yale student who adopts the name Samuel and goes to an apple farm in Oregon in order to impress a girl. Samuel’s friend ditches him, and he immediately finds himself out of place among the roughnecks and Mexican laborers (he speaks no Spanish). After catching the eye of a overly friendly forklift operator (Corey Stoll), atheist Samuel falls in with Jon (Denis O’Hare), a recovering alcoholic and devout Christian artist who takes him in as an apprentice as he prepares for the Oregon state fair by making state-shaped clocks out of jade.

What immediately separates C.O.G. from its Sundance brethren is how it simultaneously gets comic mileage out of Samuel’s pretensions while undercutting them. It’s fun to see him brush off an overly enthusiastic Christian on a bus trip, but it’s even funnier to see his blowhard tendencies mocked. A great exchange with Dean Stockwell’s apple farm owner:

“Do you speak a little Spanish?”
“No I don’t.”
“They didn’t teach you that at your college?”
“I studied Japanese!”
“…what the fuck for?”

Groff gives a very good performance as someone who spends much of the movie as a smug little shit but remains sympathetic nonetheless as someone who’s adrift, struggling to accept his homosexuality. The film is even better, however, when dealing with the people he encounters. Stoll, who’s made a name for himself playing brash men in Midnight in Paris and House of Cards, dials back his coarseness for someone who’s initially the only one sympathetic to Samuel. His clear romantic interest (lost on Samuel at first) becomes more aggressive, but the way the movie handles his loneliness offsets any potentially uncomfortable aspects.

The real highlight, however, is O’Hare as a character who could have been, in different, lesser films, either a reductive caricature of a religious fundamentalist or a glib mentor type. Instead, he’s one of the most complex characters of the year, someone who’s both giving and impatient, warm but with a real nasty side, an open wound of a character who defies expectation at every turn. It’s one of the best performances of the year in a film that shows real promise for Alvarez’s talents with actors and not judging some truly thorny characters. If only more people saw it.

This film is now 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.

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

The Past


Grade: 85/A-

In the span of two years, Asghar Farhadi has gone from Iranian cinema also-ran to a must-watch director. 2011 masterpiece A Separation, about the divorce of an Iranian couple, was an uncommonly nuanced look at the breakdown of a marriage and how parents unwittingly hurt their children while trying to protect them. His new film, The Past, isn’t quite on the level of that film, but that’s hardly a knock against it. It confirms Farhadi as the heir apparent to Anton Chekhov, perhaps the most skillful pure dramatist working in modern cinema.

Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) and Marie (Bérénice Bejo) are married, but they’ve been separated for four years. Ahmad returns from Iran to Paris to finalize their divorce after Marie gets engaged to Samir (Tahar Rahim). Ahmad has been the primary father figure to Lucie (Pauline Burlet), Marie’s child from a previous marriage, who disapproves of her mother’s new relationship, as does Samir’s young son Fouad (Elyes Aguis). Ahmad learns that Samir is currently married, with his wife currently in a coma she’s unlikely to recover from, but the details of what put her into that coma are more complicated than they initially seem.

Farhadi shows the same gift for working with actors that he did in A Separation: this is one of the best ensembles of the year. It’s hard to screw it up when he’s given each of them a richly written role, but the actors all meet him more than halfway, from Mosaffa as the uncommonly patient but clearly wounded Ahmad to Rahim (best known for his great performance in A Prophet) as a loving but often stern man trying like hell to make the best of an impossible situation to Bejo, who dials down the megawatt smile she showed in The Artist to play a mother caught in the middle of the ire of both her daughter and stepson, for reasons that become increasingly complicated. Special props to Farhadi for getting great performances from the younger actors as well, with Burlet, Aguis, and Jeanne Jestin (as Marie and Ahmad’s daughter) all believably unsure of where they stand in the midst of their parents’ problems.

But as it was with A Separation, the biggest star is Farhadi’s brilliant script, which makes each character’s position empathetic at every turn. Farhadi sometimes leans too hard on the dialogue to explicate his theme (hint: it’s hard to move past, well, the past). But it hardly matters when he handles each character with such understanding and makes potentially melodramatic plot turns feel natural and wholly earned. Why do the characters avoid talking about the circumstances around the failed marriage? Why do people try to escape the past all of the time, when it’s unsuccessful almost without fail? Farhadi doesn’t give any easy answers. Few directors understand human complexity the way he does. I wish we had more of 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, where you can see my lists of favorite films from any given year or decade, or just brief capsule reviews of whatever I’m watching in my spare time.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Blue is the Warmest Color


Grade: 86/A-

Ah, what I’d give for a world where Blue is the Warmest Color wasn’t tainted with extratextual information. Abdellatif Kechiche’s film debuted at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year to some of the best reviews in recent festival history before winning the Palme D’Or. Since then, however, the film has been plagued with controversy: over its long, explicit sex scenes and the accompanying NC-17 rating, over author Julie Maroh’s charges comparisons of the sex scenes to porn and straight-male fantasy, and the knowledge that Kechiche bullied his stars on and off set. It’s a damn shame: Blue is the Warmest Color isn’t perfect, but it’s one of the most powerful coming-of-age stories and romantic dramas in recent memory.

Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) is a 15-year-old secondary-school student. She’s had a romance with a boy her age, but she’s not satisfied, and she finds herself more interested in women. One day she passes by Emma (Léa Seydoux), a blue-haired art student whom she becomes fascinated by. The two meet again in a lesbian bar, where they first become friends and then fall in love. The two move in together for a few years, but at a key moment their relationship is tested.

For a three-hour movie, Blue is the Warmest Color doesn't have the most complicated plot. Instead, it charts the ups and downs of a relationship in great detail. What would be banal in two hours feels bracingly intimate in three hours, as Kechiche takes his time to map out Adèle’s first sexual experiments before she finally meets Emma roughly forty minutes into the film, then lets the romance play out naturally.

That feeling of intimacy is well-served by Kechiche’s decision to shoot most of the film in close-up, as if we’re a party to their romance, overhearing the most important details of their life. Whether we’re hearing their first flirtations, their most heated arguments, or their teary-eyed reconciliations, it’s an extraordinary, evocative relationship.

That feeling that carries over to the two lengthy sex scenes. Some detractors have commented how over-the-top and unrealistic the scenes feel. It’s a fair argument (although I feel it assumes everyone has sex the same way, which no), but the main point of the scenes is not their sexual intensity, but their emotional intensity. When taken in consideration to Adèle’s disappointing encounter with a boy her age earlier in the film, they serve to show how present these two are with each other, and how desperately they want to please each other.

That’s not to say that the charge of the male gaze isn’t without merit. There’s an inevitable feeling of voyeurism here, but there’s a few shots in particular that stick out: scenes of a sleeping Adèle, and one that follows her into the shower. These shots aren’t connected to the characters’ emotions and feel a bit, well, icky because of it.

These are minor complaints, however, and they’re more than compensated for with how sensitively Kechiche and his actors handle the characters. Seydoux, best known for minor roles in Midnight in Paris and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, is a truly magnetic presence as Emma, funny, articulate, and talented; it’s easy to see why Adèle might fall so easily for her. And every superlative thrown at Exarchopoulos is warranted: she’s an absolute natural, at once intelligent but naïve, happy to be in love but confused about how to handle it. We’re with her every step of the way as she winds up sadder but a little bit wiser, maybe recalling our own formative experiences along the way.

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.

Director Spotlight #15.25: Martin Scorsese's Hugo


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: 69/B

No director has done more for film preservation than Martin Scorsese.  The acclaimed director started the Film Foundation in 1990, and the organization has since preserved over 500 movies. What’s more, Scorsese’s lengthy film documentaries A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies and My Voyage to Italy emphasize the importance of film history and visual literacy (the ability to “read” movies and see what certain techniques say about the story). 2011’s Hugo seemed like a bit of a departure for the director – it’s a children’s story from someone who’s upcoming film just squeaked by without getting an NC-17 rating. It even threw me a bit at the time, even as I appreciated the film preservation material at the heart of it. But Hugo isn’t just a film history lesson sandwiched in the middle of a kid’s movie. It’s about what the movies mean to us.

Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is a 12-year-old boy living in the walls of Gare Montparnasse in 1931 Paris. His father (Jude Law) died in a fire, and his uncle (Ray Winstone) brought him to mend the station’s clocks before leaving him. Hugo now avoids the of Station Inspector Gustave (Sacha Baron Cohen) in order to stay out of the orphanage. Before he died, his father found an automaton that the two planned to fix.

Hugo now goes around the station stealing parts, but he’s caught by toymaker Georges (Ben Kingsley), he has to start working for him in order to get back his father’s notebook, which Georges confiscated. Hugo befriends Georges’s granddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), a bookworm who is forbidden by Georges to go to the movies. Hugo bonds with her, and they soon find out something about Georges: he is the forgotten silent film master Georges Méliès.

Hugo was noted for being Scorsese’s first film in 3D, but I’m one who believes that the film greatly benefits from being in 2D. 3D has an immersive hyperrealism effect, and for all of Scorsese and cinematographer Robert Richardson’s considerable effort, the effect works against the gorgeous picture book quality the images have.  It’s less in the style of the period dramas Scorsese made in the past, more in the style of the dreamy melodramas of Powell and Pressburger, updated for a modern audience. That effect carries over to the canny use of POV, as Hugo watches from afar the charming vignettes within the station: a salesman (Richard Griffiths) tries to romance a woman (Frances da la Tour) but has trouble with her unfriendly dachshund; Gustave tries to romance a florist (Emily Mortimer), but the squeaking in his leg-brace undermines his confidence.

More to the point, Hugo falls under what Powell would have described as a “composed film”, one where the music dictates the composition, montage, and performances so that it all moves beautifully together. Many were wowed by the CGI camera swooping and tracking shots, but I’m most charmed by the deliberate compositions and edits in a scene where Hugo fixes a wind-up toy (done in an amazing stop-motion effect) to Howard Shore’s lovely score, with us seeing all of the work that goes into a beautiful little machine. That effect carries over to Hugo’s fixing of the clocks, and it makes a thematic tie to the work and magic that goes into film. There’s something enchanting in the wonder Scorsese and his characters regard it with.

But then, it’s the film that most communicates Scorsese’s love for the movies, and not just in the Méliès storyline. The whole film is packed with references to early cinema, whether it’s a splice of bodies in motion over a trampled Moretz (in a bit that references both Keaton’s The Cameraman and the early Busby Berkeley musicals at once) to a handful of scenes that both show the Lumière Brothers’ Arrival at a Train Station in its original footage and in Scorsese’s 3D reimagining. And then there’s a scene at the Film Academy Library, in which Hugo and Isabelle look through a picture-book of movie history, just as a young Scorsese did with the book A Pictorial History of the Movies (referenced in A Personal Journey), and we get to see the images of The Kiss, The General, Intolerance, The Great Train Robbery, and other early silent classics.

I’m still not as effusive about Hugo as some: John Logan’s script has some real clunkers (“Maybe that’s why broken machines make me so sad…”, “I am your only friend!”). And while Scorsese weaves the stories of Hugo and Méliès together better than I remembered, the film is still a bit meandering and overextended, particularly in a final chase between Hugo and Gustave that would have benefited from simplification and trimming.

I’m also still iffy on those two performances: Butterfield is fine in the quieter moments, but he’s less convincing in any moment where Hugo has to express outsized emotion (particularly whenever Hugo cries). Cohen, meanwhile, gets a bit too caught up in the mannerisms of Gustave for him to really work as a character (though he’s not helped by an ill-considered bit of slapstick early on, complete with a dreaded dog reaction). My colleague Loren Greenblatt of Screen Vistas wrote, “He’s supposed to be off, but his off-ness is off.” It seems a bit too considered and too stylized  to really connect, and it makes his late-film reversal unconvincing.

The other two major roles, however, are quite strong. Moretz’s accent feels a bit overdone, but she’s perfectly charming and bright as the precocious Isabelle. And Kingsley nails the bitterness that defines Méliès, a man whose zeal for magic and escape from reality is ground down by the uncaring world, by the people who view old films as worthless. It’s hard not to end up broken when the work you’ve made for the whole world isn’t just rejected, but flat-out destroyed, and it’s easy to see Scorsese’s worst fears in Kingsley’s character.

And yet, Méliès’s work lives on. Much of the world might have moved on from it, but the enthusiasm of critics, of fimmakers, of historians, and of anyone to whom they matter keep them alive. Scorsese’s film wanders a bit, but the wonders of recreating Méliès’s work in flashback (complete with a lovely soft focus and a look at what the filmmaker did for early special effects) and showing the glorious A Trip to the Moon to a moved Méliès more than makes up for it. Like Hugo, Scorsese was a lonely child, and the movies gave him something to connect to. Hugo is part history lesson, part film preservation plea, but above all else it’s a film about how the movies are a shared dream world, a shared memory, for cinemagoers young and old.


Some superlatives at the end of this edition of Director Spotlight:


1.     Raging Bull (100/A)
2.     Taxi Driver (99/A)
3.     Goodfellas (99/A)
4.     Mean Streets (97/A)
5.     The Age of Innocence (96/A)
6.     The King of Comedy (96/A)
7.     The Departed (94/A)
8.     The Aviator (93/A)
9.     A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (91/A)
10. The Last Temptation of Christ (90/A-)
11. After Hours (89/A-)
12. Shutter Island (86/A-)
13. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (84/A-)
14. The Last Waltz (83/A-)
15. Casino (82/A-)
16. American Boy (78/B+)
17. No Direction Home (77/B+)
18. The Color of Money (76/B+)
19. Public Speaking (76/B+)
20. A Letter to Elia (76/B+)
21. Gangs of New York (75/B+)
22. Shine a Light (74/B+)
23. New York, New York (71/B)
24. Italianamerican (70/B)
25. Living in the Material World (70/B)
26. Hugo (69/B)
27. Bringing Out the Dead (69/B)
28. My Voyage to Italy (66/B)
29. Who’s That Knocking at My Door (63/B-)
30. Kundun (60/B-)
31. Cape Fear (57/B-)
32. Boxcar Bertha (56/B-)
33. Feel Like Going Home (46/C+)

Shorts: The Big Shave (92/A), Life Lessons (91/A), Boardwalk Empire pilot (A-), It’s Not Just You, Murray! (82/A-), The Key to Reserva (81/B+), What’s A Nice Girl Like You Doing at a Place Like This (77/B+), Street of Dreams (76/B+), Bad (75/B+), Made in Milan (65/B)

Still unseen: Street Scenes

Best Actor: Robert De Niro (Raging Bull)
Runner-up: Robert De Niro (Taxi Driver)

Best Actor (not De Niro): Leonardo DiCaprio (The Departed)
Runner-up: Ray Liotta (Goodfellas)

Best Actress: Ellen Burstyn (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore)
Runner-up: Michelle Pfeiffer (The Age of Innocence)

Best Supporting Actor: Joe Pesci (Goodfellas)
Runner-up: Robert De Niro (Mean Streets)

Best Supporting Actress: Jodie Foster (Taxi Driver)
Runner-up: Cate Blanchett (The Aviator)

Best Screenplay: Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver)
Runner-up: Nicholas Pileggi and Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas)

Best Directing: Raging Bull
Runner-up: Taxi Driver

Best Scene: The Cell (Raging Bull)
Runner-up: Last Day as a Wiseguy (Goodfellas)


As always, I’d like to thank anyone who keeps reading these. Few have been as rewarding as the Scorsese edition, as few directors have been so consistently terrific and willing to push themselves late in their careers. Next edition might take some time to get going, as I’m trying to catch up with the last of the 2013 releases over the holidays, but I think Akira Kurosawa is worth waiting for.

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.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Director Spotlight #15.24: Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island


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: 86/A-

I just found that over the years… the films that I constantly revisited, or saw repeatedly, held up longer for me… not because of plot, but because of character and a very different approach to story.”

Martin Scorsese said that in an interview with Jon Favreau, but he’s mentioned many times over the years that he’s less interested in plot (the stuff that happens) and more in story (what it's actually about). It’s through that lens that one should view Shutter Island. The film, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, has a patently absurd plot, and several of the film’s fiercest critics have knocked the way the film ultimately unfolds. But that ignores how vibrant the style of Shutter Island is, and what Scorsese’s approach to character says about the era in which it takes place.

1954: U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) is on the way to Shutter Island, a maximum security mental facility for the criminally insane, with his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo). Teddy’s investigating the disappearance of Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer), a mentally ill woman who drowned her three children, but he finds lead psychiatrist Dr. John Cawley (Ben Kingsley) is hiding something. Teddy confides to Chuck that he’s heard about illicit medical and psychological experiments on the patients at Shutter Island, but as he starts cracking up and having flashbacks to his experience liberating Dachau or to the death of his wife (Michelle Williams) in a fire, it becomes more difficult to sort out what’s real and what’s not.

Shutter Island creates a mood of disquiet from its opening credits, as Györgi Ligeti’s “Lontano” plays, deliberately recalling Kubrick’s The Shining. It’s the only piece of music the two films share in common, but Scorsese uses classical music in the same way that Kubrick does to sustain a mood of mounting dread. Whether he’s using Penderecki’s “Passacaglia” to DiCaprio’s approach to the mental facility or John Cage’s atonal “Root of an Unfocus” during one of the film’s outlandish dream sequences, there’s always something slightly (or more than slightly) off keel.

Kubrick’s not the only master Scorsese pays homage to. Shutter Island sees Scorsese blending his most formalistic influences together, from Hitchcock’s masterful use of limited perspective to the florid surrealism and sense of doom of Michael Powell to the lurid use of mood and color in the style of Mario Bava and Jacques Tourneur. The set-up of Shutter Island (guy goes into mental facility to get scoop, finds himself lost/signs of horror of the era) is strikingly similar to Sam Fuller’s masterpiece Shock Corridor, while the sense of a world without order (not to mention the payoff) is straight out of Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Scorsese even cited the influence of new Asian cinema, particularly of Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook, for the grand sense of tragedy that he mixes in with the horror. This might have started out as a work-for-hire film (Scorsese hinted that he initially tried to get out of it in recent interviews), but the director takes the pulpy material as an excuse to take a page from the great horror and thriller directors and take us straight into nightmare territory.

And what a nightmare it is.  Scorsese and cinematographer Robert Richardson have played with high contrast between brightness and darkness before, but never quite to this degree. The brightness of the lights beat down on Teddy’s psyche to the point of migraines, while one scene where Teddy has to light his way with a series of matches puts a similar scene in James Wan’s overrated The Conjuring to shame (guys, this is atmospheric). What’s more, every dolly around a corner or an object (I’m thinking of a pan around a chair to see Max von Sydow’s sinister doctor in particular) only further heightens the anticipatory terror of even the most mundane situation. And then there’s the film’s gorgeous, Technicolor-style visual palette, which only further gives a sense that we’re removed from reality.

Scorsese’s editor Thelma Schoonmaker also gets a chance to mess with the audience’s sense of calm. A couple of deliberate continuity breaks (a reappearing glass of water, a jump cut in a cell) are some of the most immediately recognizable, a quick but effective way to give a “what the hell?” feeling. But I’m more knocked out by the dream sequence that blends together Teddy’s experiences in the war and death with the missing Rachel Solondo, in which Schoonmaker cuts to the rhythm of the music (PIANO NOTE to DiCaprio’s haunted face, drum to a pile of dead bodies) or plays with slow motion and reversed shots to give the scene an unnerving fever dream quality.

Scorsese has always been good with actors, but Shutter Island is particularly fun for how many great character actors show up for just a scene or two: Elias Koteas as a horrifically scarred patient with a history with Teddy; Patricia Clarkson as a paranoid doctor; Jackie Earle Haley as a patient with some information about both the facility and Teddy; Max von Sydow as a doctor who’s less humane than his colleague Kingsley; and a creepy Ted Levine as a warden with theories about violence in men. The larger supporting roles are great, too: Kingsley walks a delicate balance between beneficence and chilliness, while Williams’s haunting appearances in dream sequences hint at something very wrong beneath Teddy’s idealization of her. Ruffalo’s work might be the canniest as a character who feels strangely out of place before the pieces fall into place and we learn that he’s not all that he seems.

Teddy, meanwhile, is part of the long run of tortured characters DiCaprio specialized in in the mid-2000s and early 2010s. It’s a slight variation on his terrific work in The Departed: where Billy Costigan was someone trying like hell to hide that he was coming apart at the seams, Teddy’s in bad shape from the very beginning, first introduced trying to pull himself together in front of a mirror. Teddy enters the facility with a sense of bravado that can’t quite hide how uneasy he is and a sense of control that he doesn’t really have. And DiCaprio handles Teddy’s escalating paranoia beautifully, going from understandable frustration to quick-fire temper and distrust of everything around him to the point where  the character’s deterioration feels like the character’s wearing himself down as much as the elements are.

What’s fascinating about Shutter Island’s story (as opposed to its plot) is how Scorsese roots the free-floating paranoia and trauma of the era in the middle of a nerve-jangling psychological horror movie. Some of the paranoid bits come from off-handed comments about the hydrogen bomb, while others come directly from Teddy’s fear that experimental psychology could very well be about control rather than healing. The mentions of HUAC and communists used as test subjects aren’t just period window dressing – they’re there to inform how we view Teddy’s paranoia and uncertainty, and they hearken directly back to 50s genre films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Manchurian Candidate.

At the same time, we’re meant to doubt whether or not we can trust Teddy’s point of view. Every step of the way, Scorsese and screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis set up a new bit of Teddy’s backstory: he’s seen something like the electrified perimeter before, he’s quit drinking, he distrusts von Sydow’s German doctor before he’s even spoken with him at length, he has a special hatred for a patient who harmed an innocent woman. Without putting too fine a point on it until we need to know exactly what’s going on, we get the message that Teddy buried his war experiences in drink and likely took it out on his wife, and that he’s wracked with guilt and self-hatred.

Eventually we do figure out what’s going on: Teddy is really Andrew Laeddis, the man he claimed was responsible for his wife’s death, and he’s a patient who shot his manic depressive wife after she murdered their three children (who he’s seen in his dreams as the victims of Rachel Solando). On top of that, Ruffalo, who seemed off as a marshal, is actually one of Andrew’s doctors. Admittedly, it’s not handled in the most elegant way. It’s easy enough for me to overlook the questionable logic of whether or not Dr. Cawley would really put everyone at risk for one particularly dangerous patient to work out his problems – Hitchcock movies frequently operate on questionable logic in terms of plot, but justify in in terms of story. The problem is more that it turns into an exposition dump that dots every I and crosses every T, and while it’s well-staged by Scorsese, it can’t help but feel less thrilling than what’s come before.

But that’s a minor quibble when one looks at what it reveals about the character. Scorsese’s films frequently deal in guilt and self-loathing, and Shutter Island’s final act reveals just how deep those feelings are in DiCaprio’s character, who reimagines “Laeddis” as a monster and himself as a hero who’s sick of violence in order to escape his past. It’s not unlike what the Coens do in The Man Who Wasn’t There, where paranoia about flying saucers is used as a way to escape more personal feelings of alienation. Here, paranoia about government experiments and mind control tower over as distractions from more personal, destructive problems: alcoholism, PTSD, demonization of mental illness, and, in Andrew’s case, the horrible guilt over its fallout.

Shutter Island came out the same year as another DiCaprio film, Inception, which saw people debating over the ambiguity of the ending (did the top fall over or not?), focusing on the plot while overlooking what that Lady or Tiger ending says about the character and the story: that whatever the result is, it doesn’t matter, because DiCaprio has chosen to accept whatever he’s in now as reality. Similarly, Shutter Island fell into similar debate about the plot (namely, whether it was too ludicrous or not) while ignoring what the events said about the character, a man who tried to escape reality to escape guilt over his sins.  That heartbreaking final scene clinches it: it doesn’t matter what the truth is. Andrew would rather feign a return to insanity and be lobotomized than live with what he’s done. “Which would be worse – to live as a monster, or die as a good man?”

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.