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Posts Tagged ‘Martin Scorsese’

One can’t help but feel a certain sympathy for Liam Neeson’s personal circumstances and desire to keep working, even as one regrets some of the mankier films this has resulted in him turning up in over the last six or seven years – Battleship probably marks the gloomiest nadir, though there’s a lot to choose from. Thankfully, however, there are signs that Neeson is making a comeback as an actor of substance, for this week alone saw the release of A Monster Calls, in which he voices the title character, and Martin Scorsese’s Silence, in which he gives probably one of the greatest performances of his career, albeit in a supporting role. This seems quite apposite, for Silence is a remarkable film of the kind which does not come along very often.

silence

Silence is many things, but primarily a very personal story, and so the details of its setting are not systematically laid out but allowed to emerge organically in the course of the story. The majority of it takes place in Japan in the 1640s. At this time the country was under the control of the Shogunate and was attempting to isolate itself from the rest of the world in order to preserve its autonomy (this would continue until the USA effectively forced the country open in the 1850s). One consequence of this was a programme of savage persecution directed against the thousands of Japanese converts to Christianity, whose allegiance to the Pope was perceived as being a threat to the authority of the Japanese ruling castes.

Neeson plays Ferreira, a Jesuit priest, resident in Japan for many years, caught up in the worst of the persecution. The Jesuits are obviously concerned for him, and also by dark and unsettling rumours as to his eventual fate – but simply entering Japan is incredibly hazardous for any priest. Nevertheless, keen to find their mentor is the crack spod squad of Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, young priests determined to do God’s work and minister to the needs of the Japanese Catholics, and also firm believers that the worst stories about Ferreira cannot be true.

What they encounter in Japan tests their faith to the utmost, in all kinds of ways. Many questions are raised by what they see and hear, questions which they can’t help thinking over and praying about – even when the answer to all of their prayers merely seems to be silence.

Many great directors seem to wear a number of different hats in the course of their careers, and it’s no different with Martin Scorsese. There are the films he’s made as a director for hire, some of which are very fine in their own right, and then there are the ones he’s perhaps most famous for – hard-edged crime dramas and psychological thrillers, often very violent, frequently with Robert De Niro or Leonardo DiCaprio. But then there are a handful of films which reveal a deep concern with spirituality and religion – the most controversial of these is almost certainly The Last Temptation of Christ, but Kundun (about the Dalai Lama) also caused a bit of a stir. This is the same category into which Silence goes, although it doesn’t appear to have provoked much of reaction.

I’m a little surprised by this, not least because its presentation of the Japanese authorities is very far from sympathetic – perhaps this is the reason why the film was made in Taiwan rather than Japan itself. Then again, perhaps people simply aren’t that interested in a film about the Catholic Church any more. I suppose there remains the possibility that Silence will be adopted by those who believe that Christianity is somehow being persecuted in western society and that the film constitutes a metaphor for this – but that would be a considerable stretch.

As I said, the film is ultimately more personal than that, although it has an undeniably epic scope and deals with big concerns across its very lengthy running time. At this point you may be thinking ‘Hmmm, this sounds a bit heavy’ – and I can’t honestly argue with that. This is not the kind of film you go to simply to have a good time or be entertained – while watching it, you can of course appreciate the craftsmanship that has gone into the sets and costumes, the artistry of the editing, the skill of the camerawork, and the commitment of the performances, but in the end this is at heart a serious film about profound issues of belief and faith.

It is on one level a kind of adventure, with the two priests trying to survive in a hostile landscape, witnessing the awful persecution of their flock, searching for their mentor, and so on, but it is never far away from a thorny dilemma or serious moral or theological question – are the priests right to allow the villagers to sacrifice themselves to protect them? Is the faith that the Japanese Christians imperfectly observe really the same one that the priests themselves belong to? Can one ever be really certain what another person truly believes?

As a former student of philosophy with a strong interest in Japanese history and culture, I found Silence to be mesmerising from start to finish, but I suppose there are a few people dotted about who may not find long discussions on the subject of apostasy to be quite what they’re looking for in a film, which begs the question of whether there’s anything else here for them. Well, I would certainly say so, for while the trappings of the film are steeped in Catholicism and the work of the Jesuits, I think it is ultimately about the nature of faith itself – why does someone believe something? What sustains that belief through difficult periods? What drives a person to try and share his creed? It is about people at least as much as any religion.

And it works as well as it does because of some very notable performances. It’s good to see Liam Neeson back on top form, but we always knew he was a heavyweight given the right role; what’s perhaps more revelatory is Andrew Garfield’s performance. There were perhaps warning lights flashing over his career following his sacking as Spider-Man, but this film shows he is an actor of real power and range. Also making an impression as a sardonic and cruel interpreter is Tadanobu Asano, best known in Anglophone cinema for (inevitably) his work in Marvel Comics movies.

Lots of people get rather excited about Goodfellas and Raging Bull and Casino, but I must confess that these movies have never quite done it for me – all the machismo and/or Mafia chic kind of gets in the way of their undeniable quality. For good or ill, Silence is much more my type of film. I am certain it won’t be to all tastes, for the theme, tone, and graphic violence and cruelty will probably combine to put many people off. And that’s regrettable, for I think Silence is a truly magisterial and significant piece of work which people will be watching again and again for many years to come. It asks the most serious questions in an undeniably powerful and moving way, and perhaps even changes the way you think about the world – and if that’s not the definition of great art, I don’t know what is.

 

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Well, the Christmas blockbuster season is descending upon us as usual, and it’s interesting to consider how it compares to its larger summer cousin: fewer films, obviously, perhaps slightly more aimed at a younger audience (not that many summer movies aren’t utterly juvenile), sometimes more of an aura of quality (no doubt due to the overlap with the release of Oscar-bait movies). But apart from that the big Christmas releases aren’t that different from the summer ones – there’s the usual reliance on sequels, series, and big-name properties (skewed more towards the traditionally literary than comic books, though).

Which makes Hugo a bit of an anomaly, in some ways – while this is a big, lavish movie with virtually an all-star cast, it’s based on a novel that I’d never heard of (and I suspect most other people haven’t, either). So what are the makers relying on to draw in the crowds? Well, it seems to me they’re relying on something rather unusual – not just the use of 3D, which is not the novelty it was even last year, but 3D in the hands of a master director, an acclaimed film-maker not usually associated with what is – let’s face it – still a gimmick.

The man in question is Martin Scorsese, someone with a stellar reputation but not much associated with family entertainment. Parents need not fear: no-one’s head is put in a vice, no pimps are executed, and no-one gouges one of their own eyes out with a knife. What we get instead is the classically-told tale of Hugo (Asa Butterfield), an orphan living in the main railway station of Paris in the late 1920s. Hugo is the last of a family of clockmakers – his mother died when he was very young (i.e., off-screen), and his father (Jude Law, briefly) in a museum fire. Now in the nominal care of his boozy uncle (Ray Winstone, even more briefly), he is maintaining all the clocks, while trying to avoid the station Inspector Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen) and repair the automaton (a clockwork man who basically looks like Maria from Metropolis‘ grandad) he and his father were renovating when he died.

Hugo’s quest for parts for the automaton leads him to meet the proprietor of the station toy booth (Ben Kingsley) – well, basically he steals clockwork toys. The old man, when he learns of Hugo’s obsession, is inexplicably appalled, and confiscates Hugo’s notebooks about the mechanism. Hugo is forced to ask the old man’s god-daughter (Chloe Grace Moretz) for help, and together they set out to discover the secret of the automaton and its connection to the toy store owner…

Well, as you possibly tell, there’s not a huge amount there that screams ‘big movie potential’ – but if Hugo proves anything, it’s that it’s not what you’ve got, but what you do with it. In almost every department this is a film made to the highest possible standards. Scorsese demonstrates his usual utter mastery of composition and camera movement, John Logan’s script is dense with imagery and detail, yet still always unfolds cleanly and clearly, and the production values are faultless.

The actors are all impeccable too, for all that there is something inescapably odd about a film set in Paris, featuring an almost exclusively British cast, who all speak in an American idiom (so ‘figure something out’ rather than ‘work something out’, ‘get mad’ rather than ‘get angry’, and so on), but this is only a minor distraction most of the time. Possibly more of an issue is Sacha Baron Cohen’s very broadly comedic performance – very much Basil Fawlty meets Inspector Clouseau – which seems to have wandered in from a rather less subtle movie.

There is real strength in depth amongst the supporting cast, too – popping up here are the likes of Richard Griffiths, Frances de la Tour, Helen McCrory, Emily Mortimer, and – a total surprise to me – Christopher Lee, as potent a screen presence as ever (and still obviously knowing his own mind: he’s the only person present who actually does a French accent).

And what about the 3D? Well, it’s an integral part of the conception of the movie, as far as I can see, but the strange thing is that after a while I barely noticed it was there. The even stranger thing is that, for me, if 3D has a future then Scorsese has shown us the way to it – not intrusive or gimmicky, but considered and understated. It’s a fundamental element of the movie – the opening sequence of this movie is a stunning piece of work, and nothing that follows quite matches it – but it is only an element, rather than the sine qua non of the film.

The 3D is also pertinent to one of the themes of the film, which is the story of the birth of cinema – Scorsese is using cutting-edge 21st century movie technology to illuminate the earliest history of 19th century films. A number of these very old films are referenced in the course of the narrative, which will doubtless please other movie geeks. Then again, already being aware of the massive achievements of the first great movie directors, I was perhaps more ready than most to indulge the film in what at times feels like a slightly didactic and digressive commentary on the subject. Certainly the second half of the film, though finishing strongly and satisfyingly, lacks the involving narrative drive of the first.

If I had to describe Hugo concisely, I would have to say that it rather reminded of a live-action Studio Ghibli movie. This may sound strange, but this movie has had the same meticulous attention to detail lavished upon it, it has the same eye for the baroque and mildly grotesque, and the same classic narrative virtues. It also has virtually no trace of an American sensibility beyond a few idiosyncrasies amongst the dialogue – not in and of itself a good thing, of course, but refreshingly different from most films of this size. But then this is a refreshingly different, very well-made, and consistently interesting and enjoyable film.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published January 16th 2003: 

Hello again everyone, and let excitement be unrestrained, let joy be unconfined, because after a slightly shaky start 2003 hits its stride with a long-anticipated epic from one of the screen’s most accomplished, yet elusive artists. Yes, that’s right, Cameron Diaz has finally made another movie!

Well, perhaps not. The movie in question is Gangs of New York and while Diaz undoubtedly plays a key role, most people will be slightly more interested in the contributions from director Martin Scorsese (who arguably hasn’t been on top form since 1993’s The Age of Innocence), Leonardo DiCaprio (absent from our screens since 2000’s The Beach – not, as you might think, out of shame, but mainly because Gangs was so long in production), and Daniel Day-Lewis (who supposedly retired from acting five years ago to become a cobbler before being tempted back for this role).

Gangs of New York is set during the birth of modern America, in the mid-nineteenth century. In a terrific opening sequence, savage combat is fought in the streets of New York between rival gangs, one made up of descendants of the original European Protestant settlers, the other of more recent Irish Catholic immigrants (Scorsese doesn’t need to stress the parallels with Ulster or other religious conflicts, nor does he). The Irish are defeated and their leader, Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson, obviously in a cameo role) is killed. His young son is sent to an orphanage upstate, from which he emerges sixteen years later vowing revenge on the man who murdered his father – a psychopathic crime lord known as the Butcher…

From here on it’s a slightly routine revenge-drama with a few gangster-movie staples thrown in for good measure, but it’s made extraordinary by its setting – this is a period of history that seems never to have been portrayed before (or maybe the film just makes it feel that way). New York is depicted as lawless, terminally venal, and locked in a permanent state of chaos – even the rival fire brigades engage in pitched battles on the street in order to claim the ascendancy. The city is split from top to bottom, along lines of ethnicity, religion, and wealth. The richness, vibrancy, and detail of the movie is remarkable.

The screenplay recognises that America’s greatest strength, its diversity, is also its greatest weakness. The film occurs before the great Polish and Italian immigrations and strips this theme down to its barest form – that of the English and Dutch set against the Irish. (Ironically, the original settlers refer to themselves as ‘Native’ Americans.) The film’s final message on this theme is (perhaps deliberately) a little unclear – the final conflict is never really consummated but at least it avoids cheap flagwaving and sentiment, instead choosing the slightly more ominous suggestion that while the past may be forgotten, it never loses its influence over the present.

Scorsese’s flair and deftness with the camera is as masterful as ever and the editing is also frequently superb. The gang battles which bookend the film are tremendous, as is the depiction of the Draft Riots the latter one coincides with (an event which until less than eighteen months ago remained the single largest loss of civilian life in American history). Elsewhere the film is less accomplished, but it’s never less than very watchable.

This is largely due to a towering, bravura performance from Day-Lewis as Bill ‘the Butcher’ Cutting. Looking like a bizarre hybrid of Will Self and the Mad Hatter, he swaggers through the movie, effortlessly acting everyone else off the screen. Cutting is one of the more complex characters to appear in a major release in recent years, but Day-Lewis nails the part, managing to be grotesque, funny, and chilling simultaneously. He dominates the film, even to the point of eclipsing Jim Broadbent (who appears as a crooked politician). Broadbent is only one of an outstanding supporting cast, including John C Reilly, Brendan Gleeson, and Henry Thomas (clearly sticking to a ‘one big movie every twenty years’ regimen). Those wondering what David Hemmings and John Sessions have been up to recently will find their questions answered too.

But what of Leonardo? And, come to think of it, Cameron Diaz? Well, I hate to say it, but if this movie has a weak point performance-wise it’s in the leading couple. Diaz’s part isn’t as meaty as DiCaprio or Day-Lewis’s but she does the best she can, although she’s saddled with a ginger wig that makes her look dismayingly like Heather Graham. Both she and Leo deploy Oirish accents direct from County Leprechaun. Furthermore, Leonardo just never feels right as a street-hardened gang leader out for brutal revenge. Whatever the numbers this film does, this isn’t the acting showcase he probably intended it to be.

There are a few other problems with Gangs of New York. The plot does feel a little rushed in the final third of the film, probably due to vigorous use of the editing suite at the behest of producer Harvey Weinstein. Like DiCaprio’s last big hit (you know, the one with the boat in it) it falls into the usual Hollywood trap where the residents of the British Isles are concerned, sentimentality regarding the sons of Ireland (Irish good! British bad! shrieks the subtext, accompanied as usual by penny-whistle tootlings on the soundtrack). And I know I’m not the only one who’s startled by Leo’s ability to recover from having his face head-butted to a pulp before being branded with a hot knife (this probably isn’t a film to take elderly relatives to see) with barely a scar to be seen.

The good outweighs the bad. This isn’t the all-conquering masterpiece some people have claimed it is, but it is a vaultingly ambitious, highly intelligent, and exceedingly well-made film. Martin Scorsese’s contribution alone would be worth the price of a ticket, as would Daniel Day-Lewis’s. Together they ensure that movie standards for the year to come have been set high early on. The gauntlet is thrown down.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published February 8th 2007:

I first laid eyes on Martin Scorsese nearly twenty years ago. Not actually in the flesh, of course; he was contributing to a BBC documentary about (of all things) Hammer horror and, to be honest I had very little idea who he was. The name rang a vague bell, though, as having something to do with the recent film about Jesus which had received so much helpful free publicity from the fundamentalist Christians complaining about it – for people claiming to have privileged access to omniscience, fundies are awfully slow on the uptake sometimes.

These days, things have changed for both of us. I have a pretty good idea who Scorsese is and have seen many of his films and he in turn has, er, shaved his beard off and let his hair turn a distinguished whitish-grey. One thing which has not changed is his lack of recognition by the Academy – in fact, were one to make a list of Great Still-Working Directors Who’ve Never Won An Oscar, his would be one of the first names to be included. The list of Great Dead Directors Who Never Won An Oscar is in its own way quite a distinguished one, including the likes of Hitchcock and Kurosawa, but on balance one gets the impression this is an injustice that everyone involved would like to see fixed as quickly as possible.

In short, this must surely be Scorsese’s year. His latest film, The Departed, may be a remake, but it’s a classy piece of work set roughly in the gritty urban milieu Scorsese’s best movies all inhabit. The original Chinese movie, Infernal Affairs (aka I Want To Be You), was reviewed here in 2004, and the American version sticks reasonably close, in concept if not detail.

Boston gangster Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson at his most demonic) and Boston police captain Oliver Queenan (Martin Sheen) find themselves somewhat at odds as they go about their chosen professions, and so each hits upon a cunning ruse – they will introduce a spy into the other man’s organisation and thus cause him no end of nuisance! Costello virtually adopts a young man named Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) and puts him through school and police academy until he joins the organised crime task force. Queenan selects a young trainee with the right background, William Costigan (Leonardo di Caprio) and sends him deep undercover to the point where he can plausibly join Costello’s gang (an eclectic bunch of hoods from places like Aberdeen and East London, judging from the cast list). Both moles soon become aware of the existence of the other, if not their identity, and quickly realise that their lives may depend upon finding the other man first…

One is made aware very early on in this movie that some serious talent has been put into making it. The script is seldom less than polished, and while the story is intricate it is never very hard to follow what’s going on. Similarly, nearly every key role is filled with a name actor doing very solid work – also appearing are people like Ray Winstone, Alec Baldwin, and Mark Wahlberg (who appears to have been Oscar nominated just for swearing a lot – by his standards it’s a good performance, but by no means anything really special). The only really unknown performer in a key role is Vera Farmiga as the woman Damon and di Caprio both get involved with, and she’s pretty good as well. Scorsese’s mastery of soundtrack and technical virtuosity are also on display throughout. This is a distinctly superior thriller.

However, that’s all it is. It’s a great piece of entertainment, but no more, and in some ways it isn’t even as good as the original movie (which I seem to recall I only gave qualified praise to anyway). There’s never any doubt here that di Caprio is a hero while Damon is a nasty piece of work, whereas in the original the spy in the police was presented as a genuinely likeable and almost sympathetic guy. The ending has also been changed, with a much less ambiguous conclusion being inserted (some of the plot mechanics which bring this about seem rather implausible to me, as well).

But anyway, this is still a good bet for a night out – Nicholson is on particularly good form and the film suffers noticeably when he’s not on screen. I’m a little surprised the film is set amongst the Irish mob rather than the mafia, but I suppose Scorsese has been there a number of times before and is wary of spreading too many stereotypes. (It hasn’t stopped him casting Italian-Americans in at least two keys roles in the movie!)

In many cases, winning an Oscar is more a sort of body-of-work award than a prize for a specific film – and bearing this in mind, surely no-one would complain were Scorsese to pick one up for The Departed, even if (to my mind) it’s rather less satisfying and enjoyable than either Gangs of New York or The Aviator. Better to get a richly-deserved award for the wrong movie than to never get one at all.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published March 14th 2002

I thought it would be nice for everyone if we did a ‘golden oldie’ review that wasn’t quite as heavily mired in Cult Moviedom as usual. And so with this in mind I thought we would do two for the price of one and talk about The Hustler and The Color of Money.

Both films are based on novels by Walter Tevis and have at their heart powerhouse performances by Paul Newman, in both cases playing ‘Fast’ Eddie Felson, a gambler and pool hustler (Newman deservedly won the Oscar for Best Actor for Color of Money). The first, The Hustler, was released in 1961. Directed by Robert Rossen, it was made when Newman was still very much in the substantial shadow of Marlon Brando. At the start of the film Felson is successfully scamming his way across America with his accomplice and ‘manager’, but all this changes after he takes on the legendary player Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason, looking remarkably like a dapper Ken Clarke). In a gruelling non-stop 40-hour match Eddie seems to have Fats beaten, before choking on his lead and being taken to the cleaners.

His confidence demolished, Eddie reassesses himself and his life, entering into a fragile relationship with alcoholic ex-actress Sarah (Piper Laurie), and trying to scrape together enough money to play the Fat Man again. Then he’s approached by professional gambler Bert Gordon (George C Scott) who offers to fund and train him… and secure the rematch he so desperately wants.

This is Newman’s movie from beginning to end. While he’s occasionally caught method-acting, this is partly due to a slightly theatrical script – for the most part he lights up the screen. When he proclaims ‘I’m the best there is,’ you believe he believes it. His initial overconfidence is exhilarating rather than obnoxious and he carries the audience’s sympathy with him into despair when he loses everything, and then on to his bitter victory at the end of the film. But the rest of the main cast are very nearly as good, Gleason in a fairly small role.

But as well as being a character study of Felson, the film is also a finely-observed portrait of a whole subculture of grifters and drifters, renting rooms a night at a time, eating in bus station cafeteria, living from one score to the next. It’s also something of a paean to the old-style pool hall, with all the rituals and habits of the pro players meticulously recreated.

The pool sequences are worth a special mention: I expected the direction to hide the fact that Newman and Gleason weren’t actually playing, but a surprising amount of the match sequences were filmed in medium shot without cuts, and the actors play the game staggeringly well. Both move and cue like they know the game backwards, and the effect is hugely impressive.

Rossen’s direction (he also co-scripted) varies between the workmanlike but effective in character scenes, and a fluid, compelling, almost montage-like style for the match sequences. It’s all filmed in pristine black and white and set to a supercool jazz soundtrack, a mature, thoughtful, smart, free-poem of a movie.

The Color of Money, directed by Martin Scorsese and released in 1986, catches up with Eddie Felson twenty-five years on. The events of the first film having finished him as a serious pool player, he’s now a successful, semi-respectable liquor salesman. That’s until he encounters hot-dog young player Vincent (a startlingly young, perky and boisterous Tom Cruise) and his girlfriend Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, who’s dropped off the movie radar this last ten years or so). Recognising something of his younger self in Vincent, Eddie offers to take him on the road and teach him the trade, ahead of a big-money tournament in Atlantic City. But as the trio travel, Eddie finds his own love for the game and will to win slowly returning…

There seemed to be a training scheme in Hollywood in the late 80s, whereby Tom Cruise would be paired with as many great actors from the 60s as possible: he made Rain Man with Dustin Hoffman and Days of Thunder with Robert Duvall, and you might think this was another example. But you’d be wrong, as this is Newman’s movie every bit as much as The Hustler, and for all his steradent grin and posturing Cruise is effortlessly blasted off the screen by his twinkly, crinkly co-star. Not to say that he and Mastrantonio aren’t good, quite the opposite, but at this point Cruise was still a megastar in training, while Newman was the real deal.

That said, the script’s distinctly slanted in Newman’s favour. This is even more a portrait of Eddie than The Hustler, though once again it has insight into certain areas of America’s urban underbelly. Scorcese is a wise enough director not to impose too much of his trademark operatic style on it, though once again the match sequences are dazzlingly filmed and edited.

It all boils down to acting in the end, though, and Paul Newman’s colossal performance. When I first watched this film I thought the linking of it to The Hustler was a cheap gimmick as Newman’s character here is initially unrecognisable as the ‘Fast’ Eddie Felson of the first film. But this is the whole point, as The Color of Money is the story of how Eddie rediscovers his love of the game and his self-respect. Slowly, painfully (Forrest Whitaker has a memorable cameo as another hustler Eddie comes off second-best to), the driven, soaringly confident man from twenty-five years ago reappears. When, as the movie’s last line, Newman snarls ‘I’m back!’, you want to rise from your seat and cheer.

I think both are classics of American cinema. Personally I consider The Color of Money to be the better of the two – but it owes such a debt to Newman’s performance of 1961 that this sort of comparison is futile. Maybe in another ten years or so, Newman will play Eddie Felson as an old man and round off the story – but any such third movie will have some big, big shoes to fill.

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