Thursday, April 15, 2010

the Directors: Martin Scorsese

What kind of intro can possibly do this director justice? Looking at his body of work speaks for itself. He’s responsible for the best film of the ‘70s (Taxi Driver), the ‘80s (Raging Bull) and nearly the ‘90s (GoodFellas).

But he doesn’t always hit. Which is why I think he’s an appropriate subject to review. His new action/suspense/horror thriller Shutter Island is fresh off the boat, so, let’s talk us some Marty.

(Note: any loyal Scorsese buff knows that he makes just as many documentaries as fictional films. Here, I'm only focusing on his narrative pictures.)

Who's That Knocking at My Door? (1967)

Raw. Real, real raw. The movie has the stamp of a first-time filmmaker, but it also has the mark of someone with natural talent. Harvey Keitel subtly simmers, in a great introductory role to American cinema. If you’re a Scorsese fan, this is definitely worth checking out. Otherwise, you probably won’t need to bother. B+

Interesting Fact: Keitel and Zina Bethune ad-libbed several of their scenes, including their bravado, extended conversation about John Ford’s The Searchers.

Boxcar Bertha 1972

The grindhouse exploitation counterpoint to Bonnie and Clyde. I give it credit for its frank depiction of race relations in the Deep South. But the movie is pretty run of the mill. B-

Interesting fact: Once Producer Roger Corman saw the film, he told Scorsese to make something more personal. The result…

Mean Streets (1973)

The one that started it all. Not only did Scorsese assert himself as a serious big-time player in the film world, he created the most gritty mob movie in years. This movie may be most remembered for starting the Scorsese/De Niro partnership. The fresh cast, off-the-cuff dialogue, boomin’ soundtrack and startling resolution make this a completely unmissable, compulsively re-watchable, essential Scorsese flick. A+

Interesting Fact: The introduction of De Niro’s character, Johnny Boy, in this film is often regarded as one of the best character introductions in film history.

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)

Taking a break from the mean streets, Scorsese ventured out with a mother-son road movie. Ellen Burstyn won the Oscar for her commanding role as the money-deprived Alice. It’s a cute little movie, but honestly doesn’t have much lasting power. However, it’s important to note that this was Scorsese’s first character study, a genre he would soon immortalize. B

Interesting Fact: Recognize Alice’s son’s friend? That’s a very very young Jodie Foster.

Taxi Driver (1976)

When people ask me what my favorite movie is, I tell them Taxi Driver. This film is everything a great movie should be. The tightly angled cinematography, the perfect jazzy score (by Psycho’s Bernard Hermann), the jolty editing, the ferocious acting; it’s all here. In a starmaking role, Robert De Niro embodies Travis Bickle in a way rarely captured on film. We are not, for a single frame, watching an actor. We are watching a man slowly fade into the depths of his own isolation, losing his grip on reality. If people thought Mean Streets was a one-hit wonder, they ate their words after Taxi Driver. A+

Interesting Fact: In one scene, Scorsese was filming on the floor, shooting up at De Niro, telling him to “keep saying stuff, keep talking.” That’s how the “You talkin’ to me” scene was born.

New York New York (1977)

I hate to say it, but this flick just ain’t that good. It’s overlong, overacted, overstylized; just plain overdone. Liza Minnelli isn’t all too blame, sadly, De Niro contributes as well. At three hours, this movie could easily be cut by half its running time. No surprise that this was a critical and commercial disaster. It is odd though that Scorsese faulted so badly between his two best films. D+

Interesting Fact: Scorsese fell into deep, hospitalized depression after this film turned out to be a catastrophe. His good friend Robert De Niro, came to visit him in the hospital. De Niro had a book with him, he told Scorsese that they needed to turn the book into a movie. The result…

Raging Bull (1980)

De Niro gives the best performance of the ‘80s as Jake La Motta, a real-life Bronx-born boxer so obsessed with rage that it literally consumes him. Shot in gorgeous black and white and edited with crisp precision; there’s danger in every moment of this film, as if De Niro is seconds away from erupting. Take note of this one iconic scene: La Motta is thrown in a dark concrete cell after not being able to post bail. He’s yelling furiously, anger taking over him. He calms down and faces the wall. Slowly he starts to punch it. Then again and again and again and again. He has no one left to fight. No opponent in the ring, no wife to push around, no brother to pound; he’s alone. That is masterful filmmaking. A+

Interesting Fact: Scorsese’s direction to De Niro reciting a scene from On the Waterfront: “You aren’t playing Brando in On the Waterfront. Your Robert De Niro playing Jake La Motta playing Marlon Brando playing Terry Malloy.”

King of Comedy (1983)

A genuine surprise. Who knew Scorsese could tackle comedy with such dry wit. De Niro, yet again, shines as Rupert Pupkin (great name), a pathetic man obsessed with TV talk show host Jerry Langford (played to perfection by Jerry Lewis). There are several laugh-out-loud moments here, but not without an overwhelming sense of pity. De Niro is, of course, brilliant, but the real star is Jerry Lewis. Lewis had an off screen reputation of being a pompous, egotistical asshole, and it takes real balls to confront that persona by playing a character exactly like that on screen. The fact that Lewis wasn’t nominated for an Oscar astounds me. A

Interesting Fact: De Niro used anti-Semitic words to anger Lewis while filming the scene where Pupkin crashes Langford’s country home. Lewis had never worked with a method actor, and was initially shocked and appalled by De Niro’s behavior.

After Hours (1985)

Murphy’s Law played out in real life. The film takes place over one dreadful night, and I have to admit that the gimmicks run too similar and grow increasingly annoying. Note the fantastic long shots of the newspaper office. By no means boring, but definitely not in the top tier of Scorsese’s filmography. B

Interesting Fact: Scorsese instructed lead actor Griffin Dunne to refrain from sex and sleep during filming in order to get a more realistic feeling of paranoia.

The Color of Money (1986)

Like After HoursThe Color of Money isn’t a classic, but it isn’t trying to be. Scorsese takes a simply story - pool sharks - and does what he wants with it. The highlight being the smooth photography of the pool games. Paul Newman won an Oscar reprising his Hustler role as Fast Eddie Felson and Tom Cruise is good at playing naïve, but the film is simply pure entertainment. Which can actually be refreshing after Scorsese’s more challenging films. B+

Interesting Fact: Aside from one very difficult shot, Tom Cruise did all of his own pool shooting.

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Scorsese’s passion project. To be honest, I’ve only seen this once years ago, but what stays with me more than its winded running time, solid acting and sturdy photography, is the story itself. The third act (once Christ gets off the cross), is one of Scorsese’s finest moments as a filmmaker. A-

Interesting Fact: Aidan Quinn, Eric Roberts and Christopher Walken (!) were considered for the lead role before Willem Dafoe was casted as Christ.

GoodFellas (1990)

Compulsively watchable. Ferocious performances, rockin’ soundtrack, game-changing cinematography, sharp-as-nails editing; quite simply the best gangster movie ever made. I could describe any scene in the film as masterful. But take its opening. The banging from the trunk. The curious glances. The kitchen knife. The six-shooter. GoodFellas grabs you right away, and doesn’t give a hint of letting go. A+

Interesting Fact: According to the real Henry Hill (played by Ray Liotta in the film) Joe Pesci’s portrayal of Tommy DeVito was 99 percent accurate, with one notable exception - the real Tommy DeVito was a massively built, strapping man, in contrast to Pesci's diminutive size.

Cape Fear (1991)

Leave it to Scorsese to actually pull off a classic remake with stride. De Niro - in yet another brilliant performance - delivers possibly his most terrifying work as Max Cady. Who can forget the sight of a grossly buff, heavily tattooed De Niro straddling a horrified Illeana Douglas? Props to Nick Nolte and Jessica Lange for going pound for pound with Bobby De. But to be perfectly honest, the end action sequence is way too over the top. B+

Interesting Fact: Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum, the stars of the original Cape Fear, both make cameos here.

The Age of Innocence (1993)

Scorsese ditches his comfort zone for a 19th century period piece (not my favorite genre). But this film comes off as a great, sprawling romance. Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pheiffer’s chemistry is so hot it’s practically on fire. Admittedly better with multiple viewings (I was a tad bored the first time). Definitely not the most viewed Scorsese flick, but one that shouldn’t be overlooked. B+

Interesting Fact: Scorsese has said that this is the most violent film he's ever made, an obvious reference to the emotional versus physical states of being.

Casino (1995)

Some of the fastest three hours ever put on film. This highly stylized and ridiculously addicting movie paints Las Vegas in such a glamorous light, that we can’t take our eyes off it. As Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein, De Niro delivers a controlled, nuanced performance, leaving the theatrics for Joe Pesci and Sharon Stone. While Casino boasts some of the most violent scenes of Scorsese’s career, I remember it more for its style (extreme slow motion shots of dice) and canny wit (everything that comes out of James Woods’ mouth). A

Interesting Fact: When James Woods heard Scorsese was interested in working with him, Woods called Scorsese's office and left the following message: "Any time, any place, any part, any fee."

Kundun (1997)

Another departure for America’s favorite Italian filmmaker. Here Scorsese focuses on the rise of the current Dali Lama. What’s interesting is that the film isn’t really presented as a movie, with structured, following scenes. But instead as chapters from a book. A scene may be discussing a completely different topic than the previous one, then suddenly go back to the old topic minutes later. Gorgeous photography and a pounding score are the highlights. B

Interesting Fact: Scorsese, writer Melissa Mathison and her then husband Harrison Ford were added to the list of over 50 people banned from entering Tibet because of this film.

Bringing out the Dead (1999)

Veteran Scorsese editor Thelma Schoonmaker must have had a field day with this flick. This movie is like Scorsese’s mind on coke and acid simultaneously. The images zoom in and out the camera pans every which way upside down sideways the music blares the acting screams the colors pop the movie plays out like this sentence as in it is exhausting and feels like it goes on forever. When Nicolas Cage is good, he’s good. And here he fits the character’s mania very well. Standout supporting performances (namely by Tom Sizemore, who I have a feeling wasn’t really acting) help make the movie memorable. B

Interesting Fact: Scorsese said that one third of this movie was filmed inside ambulances and predominantly at night.

Gangs of New York (2002)

This is tough to critique. Scorsese’s interest is evident in his lavish set designs, detailed costumes and thorough retailing of history. However, this isn’t a perfect movie. Leonardo DiCaprio, for one, seriously bogs the film down. He wasn’t there yet in terms of his craft. His performance comes off as a bloated mess. Daniel Day-Lewis, on the other hand, is remarkable as Bill the Butcher. He carries the film, and fortunately makes it worthwhile. The fighting is epic, but is that enough to save the movie from its patience-testing running time? You be the judge. A-

Interesting Fact: To get into character, Day-Lewis never spoke to DiCaprio off-camera, and often listened to Eminem before shooting his scenes.

The Aviator (2004)

When you put an entire film in the hands of Leonardo DiCaprio, it can go either way. And I must say, I am impressed, overall, with him as Howard Hughes. DiCaprio is a bit weak in the first hour of the movie, but once Hughes falls into depressed mania, Leo hits his stride. The rest of the movie? It’s good enough. Clearly Scorsese was trying to echo older period pieces, and he does a fine job, I suppose. The supporting cast helps a lot. As does a fantastically executed plane crash sequence. A-

Interesting Fact: Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of Katherine Hepburn makes her the only person to win an Oscar for playing a real-life Oscar winner.

The Departed (2006)
I have virtually nothing bad to say about this movie, it is a return to form in the best possible way. Every single member of the cast pops with fierce intensity. Scorsese uses his most trademarked elements – music, editing, cinematography – to propel this Oscar winner into a pulse pounding roller coaster. To some, the film is not without its faults. To me, I couldn’t find one. A+

Interesting fact: Many know this movie earned Scorsese his first directing Oscar. But it was also his first film to win Best Picture.

Shutter Island (2009)
Shutter Island feels like a departure, but a departure from what? Most people equate the name Scorsese to the gangster film. But in actuality, he’s only made three films about the mob (ok four, if you count Casino). It just so happens that those three (or four) films are some (if not the) best gangster pics ever. My point is that Shutter Island is far from a gangster flick, but it still has Scorsese’s stamp all over it. The look, the style, the flow; it’s all Marty. But it may not be the best Marty you’ve ever seen. A worthy, if not entertaining, venture. B

Interesting Fact: This has nothing to do with Shutter, but Scorsese’s next project is rumored to be a Sinatra biopic starring Mr. DiCaprio. Hmm


  1. I love Casino the most, I can watch it over and over again, that;s great you mentioned James Woods I love him in this movie. Great post! I love the series, it's amazing you saw all those movies.

  2. @Sati. James Woods is so fucking good in that flick, I cannot believe he didn't get nominated for anything. LOVE Casino.

    I'll go on these crazy benders of watching all a particular director's work, until I've gone through all their movies. I love saying that I've seen everything they've done.

    Thanks, as always, for reading/commenting!

  3. Scorsese is right behind Fincher as my favorite director. I can't really think of a lot of directors with as many great movies under their belt as Scorsese. Especially when it comes to crime and gangster movies. Goodfellas is my favorite of his and definitely in my top 5 favorite movies of all time. I absolutely love it.

    1. Ol' Marty, he's the best. Goodfellas is easily one of the most compulsively rewatchable films ever made. And I ask, when was the last time you watched Dances with Wolves? Damn shame.

  4. I'm sorry to say but I love more 'the old' Scorsese than 'the new' Scorsese. His '70s & '80s films better than his '00s films. (DiCaprio isn't so good)

    1. Oh me too. Taxi Driver IS my favorite film of all time, and Raging Bull is in my Top 20.

  5. What did you think of Wolf Of Wall Street? Id say its one of his most entertaining movies (that I've seen :P). I know you had it in your worthy long movies list but I wondered if it was an A? A+? F? Great film.

    1. Love it. Actually just rewatched it yesterday for the first time in a while. I'd hold at a solid A. What a fearless piece of work.

  6. Its strange: Looking back at what I've seen out of Scorsese's work I don't seem to hold that many films in a high regard...

    [That short film 'a close shave'?] B-
    Mean Streets B- (Though the opening credits are my favorite ever)
    Taxi Driver A*
    Raging Bull B
    The King of Comedy A
    GoodFellas A
    Cape Fear D-
    Casino B (really fun flick, though)
    Kundun C
    Bringing out the Dead C
    Gangs of New York C- (DDL is exceptional)
    The Aviator C+
    The Departed B+
    Shutter Island U (kill me.)
    Hugo B-
    The Wolf of Wall Street B- (enjoyed it- but elongated for sure)
    Cant wait for Silence. Irishman looks great too.

    ...and yet I love him as an artist. Watching Scorsese's best work is fine for sure, but listening to the guy talk in interviews and the documentaries is just fascinating. Hes so insightful and educated in the world of cinema. Of course we can agree that Taxi Driver is the absolute ruler of his filmography ;D Last Temptation of Christ next for sure.

    1. That is interesting. I definitely like his work more than you, but hey, A for Taxi Driver! All good!