Friday, February 19, 2010

The oeuvre of Marty

There's no need to do Previews before reviews today. There's only one film opening wide this weekend, and even a drunk who reads this blog with one eye closed knows it's Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island.

I would say I've been chomping at the bit to see this movie, but that would be a gross understatement. Let's just say that by this point, my famous impression of the Tasmanian Devil would be harrowingly realistic.

Am I concerned about the mixed-positive reviews? No. This is Marty in his over-the-top, reference a film left, right, center, up down and sideways mode. It's Scorsese in Hitchcock territory, and that's my idea of cinematic bliss. Even if the film is a misfire, it's bound to be a fascinating misfire. Roger Ebert, the critic who vibrates with Scorsese better than anyone else gives the film 3.5 stars. That heartens me.

I will post at least one review of this film over the weekend. For now, in preparation for the big event, I'd like to dive into my old blog archives and pull out my mini-reviews of Scorsese's major works. This is a feature called Ouevres I am inaugurating, in which I will pithily review all the films of a certain director, star or series.

But to start with, Marty:

Who's That Knocking At My Door (1967): Scorsese's feature debut already features many of his hallmarks: tortured souls, gritty locations and references to old movies. It's more than a little rough around the edges and is marred by an intrusive nude scene that was included at the producer's insistence, but it's fascinating viewing. GRADE: B+

Boxcar Bertha (1972): This Bonnie and Clyde knockoff, one of Roger Corman's cheap and dirty productions, works best as a curio; offering a glimpse of Scorsese trying to find his style in a genre setting. Bertha herself (Barbara Hershey) actually gets somewhat lost in the proceedings. GRADE: B-

Mean Streets (1973): With a terse opening narration followed by the propulsive thump of the Ronettes’ "Be My Baby,"  Scorsese finds his feet and makes his first masterpiece, with Harvey Keitel as a tormented soul and a young live wire of an actor named Robert De Niro in a story of gangs of  Little Italy. GRADE: A+

Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974): Scorsese proves he knows more than street life by directing Ellen Burstyn to an Oscar-winning performance as a waitress trying to forge a new life. This was the spawn of the TV series Alice. (Vic Tayback reprised his role as Mel in the series) Look for a very young Jodie Foster, playing the tomboy even then. GRADE: A

Taxi Driver (1976): Look for a slightly older Jodie Foster as she provides the counterpoint to this harrowing descent into madness. Everyone remembers "You talkin' to me?" but the image I can't get out of my head is of De Niro "shooting"  himself with his blood-soaked hand. That's  Scorsese playing the almost as insane passenger who's spying on his wife. GRADE: A+ 

 New York, New York (1977): This is the  type of movie that, for better or worse, Scorsese specializes in: the great flawed film. This uneasy medley of old Hollywood-style musical numbers and more modern-style angst never comfortably settles into a groove, mainly because De Niro's rough-and ready Method acting seems so out of place. Thankfully, moments of brilliance shine through, with Liza Minnelli giving her last great (and her greatest) performance, uncannily channeling her mom, Judy Garland. GRADE: B+

The Last Waltz (1978): I was never a particular fan of The Band, but Scorsese's savvy filming of their farewell concert makes me a convert for at least a couple of hours. And remember, this film should be played loud. GRADE: A 

Raging Bull (1980): After barely surviving some rough personal trauma, Scorsese threw everything he had into the making of this movie, and wow, does it show. His incredibly visceral and kinetic style is thrilling in depicting the internal and external battles of middleweight champion boxer Jake La Motta. He may have been a despicable lout, but as portrayed by De Niro, in the single greatest screen performance of the past 30 years, you can't take your eyes off him. One of the 10 best films of all time. GRADE: A+

The King of Comedy (1983): After the workout of Raging Bull, Scorsese and De Niro threw this change-up, which is startlingly insular by comparison. The director's usually active cameras are unnervingly still, as they focus on a man so desperate for fame, he kidnaps the object of his adulation, Jerry Lewis. Fine performances make for a fascinating if not altogether successful experiment. GRADE: B+

After Hours (1985): This coal-black comedy is not one of Scorsese's better-known films, but it's his funniest. And it's  also the movie that turned me on to the director. He follows Griffin Dunne on an NYC journey through hell that would made the creator of Murphy's law shake his head in amazement. GRADE: A

The Color of Money (1986): This is the one Scorsese film I can't  recommend. It's got a great cast, with an Oscar-winning performance by Paul Newman (acting alongside some kid named Cruise) and as usual, the director's  visuals are exciting. Unfortunately, the muddled story never takes hold. Maybe I should have watched The Hustler first. GRADE: C+

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988): This labor of love caught all kinds of hell, mostly from people who hadn't  actually, you know  - SEEN the movie. It happens to celebrate rather than denigrate Jesus, and the passion Scorsese gives the project helps negate overlength and some miscasting. GRADE: A-

Life Lessons (1989) Scorsese's typically moody and fascinating portion of the omnibus film New York Stories has Nick Nolte giving an intense performance as an artist who finds it hard to love others. (Woody Allen's  comedy segment is very funny, but the less said about Francis Ford Coppola's puffball contribution, the better.) GRADE: A-

Goodfellas (1990): Simply put, the best mob movie ever made. Yes, I like it even better than The Godfather.  What's funny about that? GRADE: A+

Cape Fear (1991): Some took Scorsese to task for going commercial with this remake of a 1962 thriller, but the way he enriched the story by making no one entirely innocent, then applied a slick Hollywood sheen, was actually rather subversive. I prefer this version to the very fine original, which is more black and white, literally and figuratively. GRADE: A

The Age of Innocence (1993): Scorsese stays in New York but leaves the mean streets, straying into Merchant Ivory period piece territory. Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer pine for what they cannot have: each other, while Winona Ryder provides the seemingly innocent counterpoint. It's a little too emotionally chilly to be fully effective, but it's  never less than fascinating, and the performances are superb. GRADE: A-

Casino (1995): The great movie many claim this to be is lurking in here somewhere. There are some fantastic sequences and performances, including Sharon Stone's best. However, Scorsese drowns this overextended movie in throwaway details and excessive voice-overs that show just how much better he handled similar material in Goodfellas. It remains quite watchable, but a fast-forward or chapter skip button really helps. GRADE: B-

Kundun (1997): Scorsese makes probably his least commercial film as he explores the life of the Dalai Lama. The fact that it's so far removed from Scorsese's milieu helps and hurts the movie. On the one hand, it's mesmerizing; on the other hand, it's  emotionally distant. The former holds sway, with Scorsese and cinematographer Roger Deakins creating some haunting imagery. GRADE: A-

Bringing Out the Dead (1999): Scorsese reunited with his Taxi Driver/Raging Bull/Last Temptation of Christ scribe Paul Schrader to make this criminally underrated drama about a paramedic (Nicolas Cage) haunted by the ghosts of the patients he failed to save. It gets a little theologically preachy at times, but Scorsese fills the movie with hallucinatory scenes, making it feel like a fever dream - or nightmare. GRADE: A

Gangs of New York (2002): Like Casino, this film  tries to cover too much ground in too little time, but the narrative holds together better than in the Vegas film, and Daniel Day-Lewis' downright terrifying performance as Bill the Butcher gives the movie a major boost. The look of the film, including the massive outdoor sets by Dante Ferretti, is astounding. That this lost the art direction Oscar to Chicago is a crock. GRADE: A-

The Aviator (2004): Classic Hollywood movies have long fueled Scorsese's talent, so it's a kick to see him recreating golden age Hollywood with such fervor in this Howard Hughes biopic. Hugely entertaining and engrossing, the film sports great turns by Leonardo DiCaprio as Hughes, and the great Cate Blanchett as the great Kate Hepburn. GRADE: A

The Departed (2006): So this is the film that won Scorsese his Oscar. Does that mean it's his very best work? Hardly. Is it still a tense drama with superb performances and thrilling camerawork? Absolutely. GRADE:  A+

Shine a Light (2008):  Scorsese uses the Rolling Stones so often in his soundtracks that it's disappointing this concert documentary isn't as good as it ought to be. Some of the sequences are overedited, and there are too many cutaways to archival interviews, but when the director settles down and simply captures the band playing, the results can be nothing but electrifying. GRADE: B+ 

Watch for my Shutter Island review(s) this weekend. 


1 comment:

Kim said...

Love the list! I have been anxiously waiting for this movie too! I was supposed to go with my daughter last night, but she ended up getting off work late. Shoot! If she doesn't have time open up in her schedule soon, then I will just have to go without her!