Tuesday, 24 May 2016

The Great Directors... Martin Scorsese: Part 2 (1978-1990)

Continuing my quest to watch Martin Scorsese's entire directorial catalogue in chronological order. See the box in the right column for links to the other parts.

The Last Waltz (1978)
THIS FILM SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD! That's your introduction to the film, in giant black and white writing. It's a music film see, the final concert of The Band, featuring a range of guest performers and interspersed with Scorsese's interviews with the band. Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison and plenty other big names join them on stage, and the lead singer is at pains to emphasise that they want it to be a celebration rather than a morose end of era mood. I wasn't consciously aware of them beforehand, and although a few songs were familiar as soon as I heard them, I wasn't sure which were theirs and which were covers or guest songs. My highlights were an Emmylou Harris soundcheck performance (her country-twang voice is incredible), and the sight of Bob Dylan in what appeared to be a lady's wedding hat. As for the film, it works best as something to have on in the background, though if you can't stomach this kind of music then I'm not sure you could get much out of any such documentary. I found my feet tapping along anyway, so for me it must have had something going for it. The ending too is very cinematic, a really nice conclusion for band and film, and it's the inclusion of such moments that make it a Scorsese film rather than typical concert film.

Raging Bull (1980)
The last Scorsese film to be made before I was born. It is all downhill after that, for me at least. Less so for Scorsese I'd imagine. Many see this as Scorsese at his peak, a furious portrait of a broken man with all the boxing talent in the world but not the mentality to live in it. Watching it again for I think only the third time, what struck me was how little this is actually about the sport itself. It doesn't do the typical Rocky style training montage, or develop any sense of what it's like to be a professional boxer in terms of fight planning and strategy. You are in the ring with him, and out of the ring with him, but the sport itself is of less consequence than the character. Of course it is based on a real person, Jake LaMotta, so it's not as if Scorsese could have decided to make him an American Football player, but it's more to do with the person and his fall from grace. That he is a boxer is a huge bonus to the film though, Scorsese pulls off some incredible slow-mo shots in the ring, especially one amazing shot in which a blow is landed and blood and sweat explodes from De Niro's face. Cinematography of the highest order. De Niro put on a lot of weight for parts of the role, and is exceptional, arguably as good as he ever got; his iconic opening speech is easily one of Scorsese's best ever scenes. LaMotta comes across as a fairly selfish and self-destructive character, and it raises the age old issue of whether you can truly love a movie if you don't much like the lead character. I think in this case yes you can, because Scorsese lays out the story in a way that helps you 'get' why he became such a sad individual, why his behaviour towards women became so cowardly, and why his final bouts took the direction they did. From the acting to the cinematography to the writing to the directing; every aspect of this film stands as true cinematic brilliance.

The King of Comedy (1982)
I don't know why this would be the case, but I remember not being particularly enamoured with The King of Comedy first time around, and yet now I've seen it again I'm thinking it's going to be right up there as a contender for my favourite Scorsese picture. What changed? Perhaps last time I just wasn't in the mood or too tired to invest in the story. It concerns Rupert Pupkin, a delusional, disturbed man who lives at home with his mother and fantasises about being a famous comedian, and his attempts to force his way into the life of TV star Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) as a means of getting to the top. The stalker-ish madman he becomes is brilliantly played by Robert De Niro, you really buy into him as a nutcase who will go to any length to live out his fantasy. Watching it back-to-back with Raging Bull makes for a remarkable contrast in character and performance. When we do see him perform bits and pieces of comedy, he has a believable routine, but is awkward and ungainly in his speech and mannerisms. The result is that you don't know whether to laugh at him or with him, and root for him to succeed or fail in his bizarre desperation for fame. I must say that Jerry Lewis is also excellent as the suffering TV personality at the centre of Pupkin's attentions, which is something of a miracle, as I find Lewis' own comedy schtick (in films like The Nutty Professor and The Ladies Man) to be utterly hateful. It's clever casting to play him as the straight man rather than the goon he usually presents himself as. You can no doubt critique the film as Scorsese's statement on the modern obsession with fame and popularity being the main measure of success for many people, which is even more true today than when the film was made, but mainly I think I'm just looking at it as an entertaining and original story that only seems to improve with repeat viewings.

After Hours (1985)
This is definitely not by the same director who made Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, and Taxi Driver. It can't be. It doesn't look or sound much like one of his, the writing's different, it's trying and mostly failing to be funny through an irritating brand of quirkiness, and I really didn't get it at all. It's about a guy named Paul Hackett who meets a woman (Rosanna Arquette) in a cafe, kicking off a night of increasingly bizarre and fairly nonsensical events. Logic plays very little part in the plot development, and I guess that's where it thinks the comedy lies, but for once I could see another director making a better job of this - David Lynch for example would master such material. I ended up wondering if anyone involved actually knew what sort of picture this was supposed to be, the script is all over the place and maybe the fact it's remained a relatively little known Scorsese picture is down to the studios not knowing how to pitch it? Out of curiosity I just had a look at the critical response to the film, and surprisingly it seems to have been highly rated on release, so I guess I must be missing something. As is the case with all comedies though, everyone has different ideas on what qualifies as funny, so even if it wasn't for me I wouldn't be surprised if it has gained a bit of a cult following over the years.

Mirror, Mirror (Amazing Stories) (1986)
A number of years back, Steven Spielberg brought together a collection of mildly supernatural and sci-fi stories similar to The Twilight Zone, attached them to a remarkable selection of directors (including Clint Eastwood, Joe Dante, Danny DeVito, Robert Zemekis, Spielberg himself, and of course Martin Scorsese). Amazing Stories was the result. I don't know if it was ever shown on TV in the UK as this was the first I'd heard of it, but it seems they are well known in the US at least. Scorsese's tale is about a man who keeps seeing a spooky figure coming towards him whenever he looks in the mirror, frightening the life out of him. For adults it's a long way from essential viewing, and if I was going to watch the rest of the box set, I'd have to hope there is better to come. Assuming however that these were made for kids, you could probably bump the score up a bit, I would have been totally freaked out if I'd seen this at a young age. But then I've always been a bit of a wimp when it comes to horror. At only 20 minutes long, I'm just about old enough to cope with it now, but I'm also old enough to know that I'm too old to be watching this. Fun facts: apparently plans are afoot to remake the series, with Hannibal producer Bryan Singer at the helm. Also, Batteries Not Included (1987) was originally intended to be part of Amazing Stories, but Spielberg was so taken with the idea that he turned it into a film instead. I really should dig that out and relive my youth, it must be 25 years since I last saw it.

The Color of Money (1986)
Twenty-five years after The Hustler, 'Fast Eddie' Nelson (Paul Newman) has walked away from the game of pool and is doing the rounds as a liquor salesman. When he spots a hotshot young pool player (Tom Cruise) in a bar, he vows to coach Cruise to success at an upcoming Atlantic City tournament, and they set about hustling their way through the pool halls of America so they can raise the cash to get there. The characterisation of the leads is quite predictable, not least because it's a sequel, and also due to Cruise's Vincent being exactly as cocksure and rebellious as you'd expect. You get quite used to all these original film ideas coming from Scorsese that it's surprising to find him directing a sequel, and even though it's lacking the tension and pacing of the original, there are flashes of quality that make it recognisable as a Scorsese picture. There's some fine cinematography with clever use of camera placements on and around the tables, and the editing does a convincing job of making you believe you're seeing ultra gifted players. The Hustler is a set-in-stone classic, this isn't, but it's still enjoyable enough to recommend (so long as you've seen the original first).

Bad (1987)
This took me back fifteen years to a golden time when I would finish university in the middle of the day, head home and spend the rest of the afternoon watching music channels when I could have been doing something more constructive. The music video for Michael Jackson's Bad starts out as a short film in which Jackson is hanging out with some guys, who he falls out with regarding his badness, or lack thereof. I don't know what other short film music videos I can compare this to (so won't bother rating it), but it's slickly put together even if there's nothing identifiably Scorsese on show. It all culminates in a subway station standoff, where Jackson exhibits just how bad he really is, by dancing around and repeatedly singing "I'm bad, I'm bad, you know it, I'm bad, I'm really really really bad, look how quickly I can thrust my crotch in your general direction, that's how bad I am, and did I also mention I'm bad? Where did all these people come from? I'm bad".

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
I'll skip the plot recap, hopefully by now most people are familiar with how this goes. The only thing to note is that this is based on a fictional book that offers an alternative interpretation of the book. And look, I know it's a technically impressive exercise, well acted and shot, and we can all appreciate how much care and work has gone into it's making. But for want of a better expression, god it's a drag to watch. There's only so much "I'm Jesus Son of God, woe is me, isn't life hard" anyone can take, and it just goes on for hour after hour. Willem Dafoe does as well as could be expected in the central role, but the casting of Harvey Keitel as Judas is magnificently wrong; the mixture of his curly brown hair, costume design and awkward out-of-place accent only convinces that Judas must in fact have been a hobbit. Was Gandalf also in the Bible? I forget. There are some interesting ideas to credit it with, especially in the way it goes off on tangents and then draws itself back to what is commonly held up as the true version of the story. The way it ends is quite striking too, a fault with the film reel caused some unusual effects as it cuts out, and Scorsese used the faulty footage anyway. He really lucked out because it prompts all sorts of theories and questions about what's just happened, quite fitting given what's just come before.

Life Lessons (New York Stories) (1989)
New York Stories takes the form of three short (approx 45 min) films of varying quality by three marquee directors; Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen. The first is Scorsese's and tells the tale of a troubled artist and his unreciprocated love for a fellow painter who happens to be sharing his New York loft apartment. Nick Nolte and Patricia Arquette are the two leads, Steve Buscemi drops in briefly, and actually they all become impressively compelling characters considering the short running time. Nolte makes for a very convincing artist, the character produces these epic canvas paintings and it really seems as though it's Nolte producing them, I'd love to know how they managed it. I would have happily continued watching a full-length feature continuing the story, it sets itself up in a way where that would have been possible. The second story by Coppola follows a wealthy young girl and her wealthy young school friends, behaving as wealthy young people do. You know, having breakfast brought to their room by the butler, and so on. Inconsequential and easily forgettable. Finally, Woody Allen pitches one of the most enjoyable ideas I've seen of his, I don't always take to his humour but in this case it's warm and funny and really quite silly. He's explaining to his psychiatrist that he's been dreaming of his mother disappearing, and the happiness that idea creates. In real life he then takes his mum to a magic show, where of course she promptly vanishes, and even the magician can't work out what's happened. Each of the stories is just the right length to not outstay their welcome, and I really like the format, it seems a great way of presenting films that would be too short to receive a cinema release in their own right. And conveniently for this article, Scorsese's is the best of the three.

Goodfellas (1990)
Wiseguys of the world rejoice, for we have reached Goodfellas, and boy was it worth the wait. From the first minute I had a smile on my face that barely faded for the next two hours. Ray Liotta, in a role that he has never been able to repeat, leads the (true) story as young man making his way in the crooked world of Italian American New York gangsters. He guides us through this world with a narration that's constantly introducing characters and explaining what's going on, a filmmaking tactic that sometimes backfires but in this case is one of the reasons it's such a classic. Robert De Niro makes his usual appearance but this time cedes the limelight to Joe Pesci, who delivers the ultimate scene stealing performance with his infamous "how am I funny?" rant. He is a deeply unstable character, one you really wouldn't want to be around for any length of time if you value living, and is so well played that I couldn't imagine anyone else in the role. Fantastically, Scorsese's parents both also landed speaking parts in the film, I hadn't realised who they were before but after seeing his excellent documentary about them (Italianamerican, reviewed in part 1), they were instantly recognisable. She plays Pesci's mother, but is exactly like her real life persona, and the scene in which she shows a painting to him is the funniest part of the film. The film has all the hallmarks of what I think of as a Scorsese picture - the extreme violence, the humour, the tremendous soundtrack, the stylish cinematography, the voiceover, the wisecracking Italian American lingo, the seedy bars in the back alleys of New York, the corruption, the guns, the drugs, the sharp suits, and most important of all, the spaghetti sauce. To be hyper critical, I could have done with a little less hysteria from Liotta's wife, it starts to grate in the second half, but it's a minor niggle and about the only one I can think of. The best picture Scorsese ever made? I won't know that in my own mind until I've seen the rest of his work, and I'm only at the half way point now, but it's definitely going to take some beating.

1 comment: