A Matter of Life and Death
On the DVD for A Matter of Life and Death, Martin Scorsese tells a story about how, when he was growing up, the filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger sort of felt like some mythical, lost duo of directors whose work was massively overlooked and re-edited, only to be fully appreciated in the '80s once Scorsese had the power to do so. Watching their films now makes that story seem almost under-exaggerated as every film that comes out on DVD is confoundingly innovative, as if it will be made ten years into the future. And this is no exception to the film, A Matter of Life and Death, a rich, complicated fantasy that leaves so many similar films of the time in its dust.
David Niven plays WWII fighter pilot, Peter Carter, who makes one last radio call to a female soldier, June, as his plane is crashing. Coming to terms with his death, Niven uses the call to calm his nerves and over the course of the conversation the two fall in love, having never met.Continue Reading
A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies
I’ve always mistrusted the adulation that greets Martin Scorsese whenever he makes a new movie. I wasn’t around for the glory days of the New Hollywood generation of film directors making their mark in the 1970s, of which he was, of course, a principle member. His reputation as a master of gritty poetic realism was built on films like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Mean Streets and I can understand their importance to American cinema of the 1970s and '80s. But what has always bugged me is his media-appointed status and de facto role as America’s Greatest Living Film Director. I just find such a distinction to be inherently suspicious. He’s a relatively apolitical filmmaker who, in his most successful films glorifies (whatever his intentions) a criminal underclass that is meant to embody the aspirational drive of Americans for success and material wealth whatever the cost. Goodfellas is a seamless rush of images and sound. It’s a great film, but I’ve always felt that some of the greatness accorded it by critics and audiences (and his other films like it) is based in part on an obvious celebration of his one dimensional psychopathic characters. What are we really celebrating when we call him America’s Greatest Living Film Director? I’m not totally sure.
That said, the man knows a lot about movies—he is almost as famous for his films as he is for boasting an encyclopedic knowledge of film history and the way a film’s subtext is made manifest through directorial technique. He also has excellent taste. Scorsese is the perfect guide to the world of American film and this BFI-produced documentary, in which he shares with us some of his favorite films, is a pleasure to watch for its three hour duration. He starts out by saying that this is a project for him to talk about his favorite films and that he can only vouch for their importance to him as part of the formative experiences that shaped him as a film director.Continue Reading
Based on Nicholas Pileggi’s real life true crime book on minor criminal Henry Hill, Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas marks the last great film for the director and for most of the high caliber talent on both sides of the camera. Spanning three decades, this epic is the ultimate and maybe final word on the world of organized crime. These guys don’t seem to be as politically connected as the Corleones of The Godfather or even the Jersey gangsters of The Sopranos (which carries many crossover cast members), they are a petty crime crew of thieves and are willing to use extreme violence to protect their interests and egos. However as the culture of the '70s takes root in their old-world existence, though warned by their highest authority, Pauley (Paul Sorvino), not to get involved with drugs, they eventually lead to Henry’s downfall. It’s an amazing journey made more amazing by the brilliant filmmaking style of director Scorsese working at the peak of his creative powers.
Like a life in crime itself the film sucks you in, showing you the highlights then becoming increasingly dangerous, and eventually you're searching for a way out. As far back as Henry can remember he wanted to be a gangster. The young Irish-Italian kid gets a job working for the mob at their cabstand. They take him under their wing, teaching him the ways of a criminal, as well as the philosophy (most importantly “never rat on your friends”). With an unhappy home life, the gangsters make Henry feel a part of something bigger than him. Eventually he grows up to be played by the actor, Ray Liotta. Coming off of strong good guy and bad guy performances in Field Of Dreams and Something Wild, Liotta proves to be ingenious casting by Scorsese. Though handsome and charming in a rogue way he’s an offbeat leading man who brings a lot of danger to every role (peaking as the aging, corrupt cop in Narc). As an adult Henry becomes a part of the crew led by Jimmy The Gent (Robert De Niro) and his psychotic nephew, Tommy (Joe Pesci, brilliant in an Oscar winning performance). The film follows their ever-escalating crime schemes peaking with a famous Air France robbery.Continue Reading
Michael Jackson Number Ones
After Michael Jackson's tragic death, it was interesting to hear about young kids who were exposed to him for the first time (no pun intended). The magic of his personality and performances, as well as the simplicity of his music was easy enough for another generation to grasp and embrace. Like The Beatles, Jackson potentially is an artist who will be able to find a new audience starting with the very young for decades to come. Though I would argue that while The Beatles may have two dozen or more songs that are still considered standards, MJ only has five or six tops.
The DVD Number Ones, which has 15 Michael Jackson music videos, may not be enough for the hardcore Michael Jackson fan. I'm sure they could complain about what's missing (mercifully we are spared those songs he did with Paul McCartney, but it's also missing "Scream" with Janet Jackson and "Remember The Time" with Magic Johnson at his most magical). The DVD has no extras, no frills, just an easy menu that says, "play all."Continue Reading
No Direction Home: Bob Dylan
Obviously Martin Scorsese is one of the most accomplished filmmakers of his generation, now into his sixth decade with a fairly diverse body of work. He has his great masterpiece, Goodfellas, and his next tier of classics: Mean Streets, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and maybe even The King of Comedy. All five of those are with his methody, then alter-ego, Robert De Niro; though not as extraordinary but still of note is his later Leonardo DiCaprio period. Interestingly, between all these films Scorsese has also unleashed many notable documentaries. After being one of many editors on Woodstock, he started with shorts, including a great bio/interview of a druggy hustler (who played the gun dealer in Taxi Driver) called American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince. But since his feature-length docs have mostly been made for television (with subjects ranging from film history to the New York Review of Books to Elia Kazan), his best have been about music. From his first feature doc, the concert film The Last Waltz, through the mini-series The Blues to his more recent outstanding George Harrison: Living in the Material World, the guy proves he loves and understands the world of musicians. It’s his respect for the little details and the big picture that make No Direction Home: Bob Dylan his true documentary masterpiece, and maybe secretly as great as anything he has directed (or at least right under Goodfellas).
Made for PBS’ American Masters series (the source of so many brilliant documentaries of the last thirty years), the film clocks in at over 200 minutes and was shown in two parts. Instead of his famous, show-offy visual flair, more than anything else he has ever done, No Direction Home shows off his storytelling skills. All of the footage was shot before he came on board, so in some ways his role as director was really that of lead editor (though the actual editor job is credited to David Tedeschi, who later was promoted to co-director with Scorsese on his NY Review of Books doc, The 50 Year Argument). Besides the incredible plethora of material (film footage and music, much not even of Dylan), the great choice Scorsese made is that instead of an entire overview of Bob Dylan’s life, he kept it small. After a quick run-through of Dylan’s childhood in Minnesota, the film ONLY really details his New York years from 1961 when he first hit Greenwich Village, until his famous motorcycle accident in ’66 (which let to a brief retirement and then a career reboot). But what an amazing five years that was. The film is also about the other music that was happening at the time that influenced Dylan (and which he would go on to influence) and really works as a history of folk music as well.Continue Reading
Back in the day, if there was one historical injustice that could get any red blooded film-geek or cinaphile extremely agitated, it was the fact that Martin Scorsese had not won an Oscar. Of course in 2006, he finally did win for the overrated The Departed, putting that controversy to bed. But before that, film-geeks would foam at the mouth, especially knowing that the Godly director had lost twice to actors making their directing debuts.
In 1990, Goodfellas was robbed by Kevin Costner's goody-goody Western Dances With Wolves. And ten years earlier Raging Bull lost to Robert Redford’s Ordinary People.Continue Reading
One thing you can say with some certainty about Fran Lebowitz is that, above all else, she is fantastic company. She may have stopped writing decades ago and she may be known more now for her photos popping up in pretty much every issue of Vanity Fair at whatever gala Graydon Carter invited her to than for anything else, but her wit is enduring and it has kept her around even as her writing career has mummified into something from another era. She has fallen into a trap common to the aesthete. Her cultural criticism is so sharp that it has rendered her ability to capture it pointless because it will never live up to her own expectations. She won’t write much but she will talk, and talk is what Public Speaking, Martin Scorsese’s documentary about her, has in spades. It is so pleasurable to listen to this woman talk. She sizes up what’s wrong with so many aspects of contemporary American life, whether it’s the cultural homogenization of New York or her mystification over how gay rights has become a battle over an institution she can’t imagine why anyone would insist on joining.
Lebowitz can be brutal in her criticism but she isn’t cruel. Perhaps this is owed to how self deprecating she is. She occupies a place on a very small stage of public intellectuals in America —the ones who might actually get booked for a spot on Letterman. But I don’t think she has much in common with people like Christopher Hitchens or Camille Paglia. She doesn’t go for the jugular like they do. This is not to say that she can’t be provocative. One of the most interesting things she has to say is that the first generation of gay men whom we lost to AIDS was superior to the gay men who survived them because it was the ones who died who were "getting laid" and living life to the fullest. It’s an odd but poignant eulogy.Continue Reading
I’m a sucker for lavish recreations of Hollywood’s Golden Age and they don’t come much more spectacular than Martin Scorsese’s epic retelling of the life of Howard Hughes, The Aviator. The story and various legends of Howard Hughes could fill a couple of films. He was rich, by all accounts insane, and had an enormous influence on everything from aviation history to the dismantling of the Hollywood studio system. His life was by turns both enviably glamorous and enormously tragic. The Aviator doesn’t try to completely deconstruct Hughes because I think Scorsese realizes that there is something fundamentally mysterious about the man that no one key event from his life or particular psychological tic will ever fully explain. Instead, Scorsese focuses on Hughes as a man of his moment, documenting his rise and just hinting at the fall to come.
The Aviator begins as Hughes (played by current Scorsese muse Leonardo DiCaprio) is commanding both a film production unit and a group of stunt pilots for his one film as Director, Hell’s Angels. His obsessive style exasperates both his crew and the money men in charge of bankrolling his endeavor (though they work for Hughes). His painstaking attention to detail regardless of cost is virtually unheard of in Hollywood because as an independently wealthy director he is beholden to no one. He stretches the shoot for months waiting for clouds to appear. Finally, he scraps the at-long-last finished film because it wasn’t shot for sound and was finished just as silent films were on the wane. He reshoots the film because he can.Continue Reading
Who’s That Knocking On My Door
"A broad. You know, there are girls, and then there are broads. A broad isn't exactly a virgin, you know what I mean? You play around with them...You don't marry a broad..." -- Who's That Knocking At My Door
Who’s That Knocking At My Door, directed and co-written by Martin Scorsese, has had various names, influences, and spans of time in which it was filmed. One thing that leaves no question is that for Scorsese and Harvey Keitel’s first feature-film, it is an ambitious and carefully executed debut that will leave you wanting more. Keitel plays J.R., an average Italian-American whose idea of a good time is romping around with his friends and persuing “broads.” All that changes when he meets a beautiful and traditional girl (Zina Bethune) whose purity is so alluring that he cannot help but get involved. His Catholic classification of women to be the “Madonna or the whore” ignites an inspiration not only to be a gentleman, but also to offer up a willingness to settle for such a girl. But when a secret from her past distorts the fine lines he thought every woman could be defined by, J.R. must confront and break down everything he once understood about affection and his convictions.Continue Reading