(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) Martin Scorsese’s Catholicism has always informed his movies, but seldom as much as in Silence, the story of two missionaries travelling to Edo-era Japan to spread the gospel and being persecuted for their beliefs. While such a plot summary would suggest a dull drama, Scorsese keeps even a slow-paced story moving through good performances and a focus on a period of history that usually gets short thrift in western cinema. Along the way of the protagonists’ suffering, Scorsese also gets to play with themes that are dear to him and inspiring in their own way—how closely you adhere to your beliefs can be measured to how much pain you’re willing to endure for them, even as others may reach accommodations with persecution. Andrew Garfield is quite good in the film’s main role. It’s worth noting that there is seldom any explicit discussion in Silence of the absurdity of religious oppression: it exists, immovable, and can either be resisted on a personal level (at the risk of destruction) or surrendered to. In Scorsesian terms, this is a pure passion project and far closer to his spiritual biographies than his crime drama—it’s certainly not as flashy or purely entertaining as other films, but it may be more important to him than others. I approached Silence with some skepticism (I’m really not in the target audience for the film) and dread at the film’s advertised characteristics (length, setting, subject matter…) and yet ended up appreciating the result far more than I expected.
(Netflix Streaming, September 2017) If you’re going to remake a classic film, you might as well get Scorsese to direct, and get the original film’s two main actors in minor roles. That’s as close to a stamp of approval as you’ll ever get, although a title sequence by Saul Bass and reprising the original’s music score by Bernard Hermann also helps. Suffice to say that overall, the 1991 version of Cape Fear is a good movie and a successful remake of its predecessor. It updates the story, adds more details for savvier audiences (including the whole “restraining order” stuff missing from the original), cranks up the violence, doesn’t shy away from details that would have been too intense for audiences of the original 1962 film, and uses every trick of then-modern cinematography. With Scorsese at the helm, the direction is intentionally jarring, and the actors are following a coherent plan. While Nick Nolte is solid as the father trying to defend himself and his family against a dangerous ex-convict, it’s Robert de Niro who steals the spotlight as the villain Max Cady, with some assistance from Juliette Lewis as a teenage prey. The only problem in de Niro’s performance is that it’s based on an overcooked character: Not only is Cady dangerous in the criminal sense, he’s also implausibly well informed in matter of law and literature, making him seem less real than the rough and canny bruiser in the original. I’m also not terribly happy at the way the film dispenses with the character as compared to the original in which the family got to keep some of its innocence. Some artistic choices do date the film more precisely than I’d like—the credit sequence and some gratuitous recolouring of some sequences now seem more ridiculous than threatening. Still, all in all, Cape Fear is a good thriller by a master of the form, a decent homage to the original while polishing some of the first film’s most disappointing aspects. See it, but see it alongside the original.
(On Cable TV, April 2017) If anyone ever wonders what Martin Scorsese’s version of a comedy would look like, remind them of After Hours’ existence. It starts on a note familiar to countless teenage sex romp, as a young man heads to a strange woman’s apartment in hope of, well, you know. But the odds are against our hero as he loses his money, meets increasingly hostile people, suffers the worst luck imaginable and seemingly can’t manage to get himself out of trouble. It may be a comedy, but it’s shot like a horror thriller and written even more darkly. There are a number of deaths in the film, to the point where it’s the kind of film where you can comment “the murder was funnier than the suicide” and not feel like a complete psychopath. After Hours is a very strange film, compelling on the sole basis of seeing how bad things will get for the protagonist, yet repellent in content and unsatisfying in its abrupt conclusion. (To be clear: the last shot of the conclusion is just about perfect, but what leads to it seems arbitrary and far too quickly resolved to feel right.) Griffin Dunne is oddly sympathetic as the justifiably paranoid protagonist; meanwhile, Linda Fiorentino shows up in an early role as a kinky artist, Teri Garr is amusing as a vengeful waitress and Roseanna Arquette as a young woman with an entire newsstand of issues. (New York City also plays itself in its most alarming state, as a dark labyrinth in which everyone is out to get you.) If After Hours is Martin Scorsese goofing off, they maybe we should be thankful that he hasn’t made more pure comedies … or that his far funnier films usually belong to other genres.
(In French, on Cable TV, July 2016) As an entry in Martin Scorsese’s filmography, Bringing Out the Dead is often forgotten alongside his classic movies. Which is weird, considering that it’s a drama featuring Nicolas Cage as a paramedic at the height of the New York City crime epidemic of the early nineties. Directed with some of Scorsese’s flamboyance, it portrays NYC nights as barely repressed war zones in which paramedics are helpless to help their dying charges. Crime, drugs, heart attacks and accidents kill scores of victims, while Cage’s character goes crazy knowing that he hasn’t saved anyone in ages. As a Cage performance, it’s a rare blend between his Oscar-winning dramatic intensity and his borderline-insane grandiosity. The overall nightmarish atmosphere of the film seems just as unhinged as its lead actor, with the film taking place nearly entirely at night, in-between a hospital where everybody’s is shouting and bleeding, and the streets where the only people they meet are doing badly. Cage’s paramedic colleagues (the pretty good trio of John Goodman, Ving Rhames and Tom Sizemore) are even more screwed up than he is and what’s more, he can’t quit even when he asks. Stripped of its showy hallucinatory sequences (including a flipping ambulance that should have been held in reserve for later during the film) Bringing Out the Dead isn’t much more than the story of a protagonist undergoing a nervous breakdown and picking himself up thanks to romance and a few ironic epiphanies. Set to Scorsese’s own rhythm, it’s a bit more than that, even though the pacing of the story severely slows down at times. It’s worth noting that the film was written by Paul Schrader, and fits squarely in the rest of his filmography as well. Scorsese’s affection for his city is obvious even when he’s portraying it as its lowest (and who doesn’t have a soft spot for the hellish NYC of the 1970s?), and it’s that kind of pairing (alongside Scorsese/Cage and Cage-the-actor/Cage-the-scenery-chomper) that makes Bringing Out the Dead interesting to watch even fifteen years later, perhaps as a time capsule yet unseen by many.
(On-demand video, March 2012) Watching Hugo became mandatory after its five-Oscar performance at the 84th Academy Awards, but such success was predictable given that Hugo is a movie celebrating movies; Hollywood loves patting itself on the back (as further proved by the night’s other big winner, the silent-film homage The Artist) and Hugo is less about its plot that it is about seeing Martin Scorsese deliver a paean to the beginning of the film industry and, in the same breath, the tradition perpetuated by Hollywood. Which isn’t to say that Hugo is overrated: As a flight of fancy honoring Georges Meliès and the beginning of film-making as a dream factory, it’s perfectly-controlled, lavishly produced and almost heartfelt. It tells an enchanting story and does so with the best and latest feats of technical wizardry. Even seen in two-dimensions, Hugo benefits from having been shot in 3D: The opening half-hour, in particular, shows a Cameronian understanding of how to move a camera through space, creating a depth to the film that will delight anyone interested in great cinematography. The special effects are used wisely, and 1931 Paris comes alive in a way that somehow feels different from any of the many versions of the city seen on film so far. Hugo doesn’t avoid feeling a bit long, especially toward the end, and wallows in its own sentimentality, but the result is still a film that combines emotion and technology in efficient fashion. Ben Kingsley is remarkable, and the film allows itself a few moments that, while not strictly necessary, show how much wonder you can create with a big budget and decent craftsmen. The 2011 epitome of Hollywood at its most lavish, Hugo will speak most clearly to cinephiles willing to embrace “the magic of movies”.
(On DVD, February 2011) Subtle, nuanced and character-driven, The Age of Innocence nonetheless never has to struggle to keep our interest. As a piece of American Victoriana, it’s almost endlessly fascinating: the New-York upper-class of 1870 had issues to work through, and director Martin Scorsese lavishly places us in the middle of that society. As a drama of manners, The Age of Innocence carefully establishes the rules than bind the characters, then follow them as they try (or don’t try) to rebel against them. Given that this is a Scorsese picture, both script and direction are self-assured and surprisingly timeless. Even the voiceover, usually a sign of lazy screenwriting, here adds another layer of polish to the film. Production credentials are impeccable, with careful costuming, set design and even split-second glimpses at elaborate dishes. Daniel Day-Lewis is exceptional as a deeply conflicted man of his time, while Michelle Pfeiffer reminds us of how good she was in her heyday and Winona Rider turns in an underhanded performance as a constantly-underestimated ingénue. It all builds up to a quiet but shattering emotional climax that amply justifies the picture’s sometimes-lazy rhythm. Worth seeing and pondering as one realizes that the protagonist pays for the right crime but for the wrong reasons.
(In theaters, February 2010) First five minutes: Promising direction by Scorcese. Last fifteen minutes: Pretty much the same as in Dennis Lehane’s mind-bending thriller. In-between: Your reviewer slept through a terrible headache. Consider this a placeholder for a real review coming shortly.
(In theatres, March 2010) As suspected, staying awake during the film does improve the experience quite a bit. While I can’t see the film anew without any idea of what’s coming (first having read Lehane’s novel, then having caught the big end revelations during my first sleepy viewing), it’s not such a bad way to evaluate the film. Even knowing the ludicrousness of the underlying premise, the film is still satisfying: it’s a brilliant illustration of what a skilled director like Scorsese can do with pulp-thriller plotting. There are, as it turns out, plenty of subtle and unsubtle clues about the real nature of the film even from the get-go, and the filmmaking itself is compelling: The cinematography is clean, the scenes move well, the actors are interesting and the stormy atmosphere, so important in thriller, is all-powerful. At times, it feels like a realistically-presented waking nightmare, and that’s already quite a bit better than the average cookie-cutter thriller. The premise is still as aggressively nonsensical as it has even been, but that doesn’t matter as much: Shutter Island is an engaging thriller built upon a flimsy foundation, and it works a lot better than a flimsy thriller built upon an engaging foundation. Even those who feel “spoiled” by knowing the film’s twist may end up liking it better than those who come at it perfectly cold.
(On VHS, June 2001) Can’t remember a lot of things about Mean Streets even scant days after seeing it. I recall a gallery of younger well-known actors, including Robert de Niro. I certainly do recall a nude scene. I have jumbled memories of various violent acts. There are a few murders. There’s also a conclusion that takes the easiest way out, killing all characters after a preposterous coincidence that smacks more of screenwriter laziness than organic resolution (how else to explain a car finding another among all other car leaving New York at that moment?) Oh well. Scorsese-watchers will probably recognize elements from about half of all his later films in this one. Enjoy the references, people, because there isn’t much else. Practice makes perfect, and fortunately, this whiz-kid would go on to a few other better things…
(Second viewing, On Cable TV, June 2019) Disregard my previous review—I’m now nearly twenty years older, have seen almost all of Scorsese’s movies and can now recognize an influential mob movie when I see one. This being said, I may now like Mean Streets but it doesn’t mean I love it: as a naturalistic look at low-level New York mobsters as they go along their business, it works better as a prototype for later Scorsese movies. Episodic, rambling and low-stakes, Mean Streets is definitely steeped into early-seventies New Hollywood grimy conventions. The musical choice is terrific, there’s an “are you calling me a mook?” sequence that anticipates a later Joe Pesci scene, and we can also recognize Scorsese’s fondness for lengthy tracking shots. (Mama Scorsese even has a cameo.) The editing is tight, the actors handled well (it is fun to see Harvey Keitel as a dashing young man, not so much fun to see Robert de Niro as a psychopathic lowlife) and the religious symbolism as present as ever. Having a real ending to Mean Streets would help it, but not as much as we’d think at first given the disjointed nature of the film’s plotting.