The Films of Martin Scorsese
I Call First
Boxcar Bertha (March 16/05)
While this early effort from Martin Scorsese does have a number of expectedly impressive directorial flourishes, the paper-thin storyline and cheap production values (the film cost less than a million dollars to produce) turn this 88-minute drama into an often interminable experience. Barbara Hershey and David Carradine star as Bertha and Bill, a pair of depression-era crooks who spend their days robbing trains, banks, and anything else that promises a monetary reward (including an exclusive society party). Naturally, the law eventually catches up to them (the film is an admitted ripoff of Bonnie and Clyde, after all). Boxcar Bertha's oppressively deliberate pace is exacerbated by Scorsese's loose, improvisational style (something undoubtedly dictated by the budget), which gives the film a fairly amateurish feel. The end result is a movie that's highly unlikely to appeal to anyone except the most ardent Scorsese fan.
Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (May 18/16)
A typically underwhelming early effort from Martin Scorsese, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore follows single mother Alice Hyatt (Ellen Burstyn) as she attempts to start over with her young son (Alfred Lutter's Tommy) after the death of her husband. Scorsese, working from Robert Getchell's script, kicks Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore off with a bizarre yet attention-grabbing Wizard of Oz-inspired opening sequence, with the entertainingly bonkers nature of this sequence hardly preparing the viewer for the dull, frequently interminable drama that follows. The overly familiar nature of Getchell's screenplay is certainly the most obvious source of the film's downfall, as the been-there-done-that character-study vibe is compounded by Lutter's seriously annoying performance and an ongoing emphasis on thoroughly tedious episodes (eg Alice attempts to find a job, Alice attempts to find a man, etc, etc). Burstyn's solid (yet often histrionic) turn as the title character is ultimately rendered moot by the pervasively uninteresting atmosphere, and it is, in the end, impossible to discern just what drew Scorsese to the hackneyed material in the first place.
A bloated yet sporadically electrifying drama, Taxi Driver follows Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle as he becomes increasingly disillusioned with New York City's sleazy decadence - with the movie charting the mentally-unbalanced character's descent into aggression and violence. Filmmaker Martin Scorsese does a superb job of immediately luring the viewer into the proceedings, as Taxi Driver, which kicks off with an engrossing job interview sequence between Travis and a gruff personnel officer (Joe Spinell), boasts a fairly mesmerizing opening stretch that's heightened by De Niro's commanding performance and Scorsese's inventive, eye-catching visuals. The movie's subsequent transformation into a thoroughly subdued character study is jarring, to say the least, as Scorsese and scripter Paul Schrader deliver a midsection that emphasizes De Niro's character's low-key, day-to-day exploits (eg Travis attempts to woo a local campaign worker, Travis makes small talk with a porn-theater employee, etc, etc). Scorsese does, however, keep things interesting by emphasizing a number of palpably enthralling interludes, including an impressively tense sequence in which Travis picks up a man (Scorsese) convinced that his wife is cheating on him, and it's clear that the violent third act packs just as potent a punch today as it surely did back in 1976. It's equally clear, unfortunately, that Taxi Driver suffers from a progressively meandering narrative that grows more and more problematic as time progresses, with, especially, the third-act subplot involving Travis' friendship with Jodie Foster's young prostitute fizzling out long before it reaches its inevitable conclusion - which, in the end, ensures that the film never quite becomes the consistently hypnotic endeavor one might've expected and hoped for.
New York New York (March 15/05)
New York New York is an astonishingly dull drama directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Robert De Niro and Liza Minnelli as a squabbling couple who fight and argue their way through the ups and downs of their respective showbiz careers (he's a saxophonist, she's a singer). At a running time of almost three hours (!), large chunks of New York New York come off as completely superfluous - a problem that only grows more and more problematic as time progresses, given that the movie eventually morphs into a full-fledged musical. Exacerbating matters is the acting, as De Niro delivers an outrageously over-the-top performance that effectively leaves Minnelli with little to do except attempt to keep up. Aside from a few oddball moments that have nothing to do with the plot - eg a bizarre, George Costanza-esque episode in which De Niro's character gets into an incredible argument over a parking spot - there's really not much here worth recommending, though the set design is admittedly quite impressive.
The Last Waltz (March 15/05)
The Last Waltz is an overlong but enjoyable documentary revolving around The Band's farewell concert, held in November of 1976 at San Francisco's Winterland. The film includes performances by many notable musicians, including Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Dr. John, and Eric Clapton. Director Martin Scorsese does an effective job of allowing the music to speak for itself, going so far as to avoid shots of the audience altogether (an intriguing choice that absolutely works). The film also includes interviews with members of The Band, as they reminisce about their early days and discuss the reasons behind the breakup. In the end, The Last Waltz will likely have more of an impact on viewers with some knowledge of The Band's music - though it's hard not to appreciate the ample talent assembled by Robbie Robertson and company.
American Boy: A Profile of: Steven Prince
Raging Bull (March 9/05)
While there's no denying that it's very well acted and flawlessly filmed, Raging Bull is nevertheless a sporadically engaging but mostly overrated look at the life and career of boxer Jake LaMotta (played by Robert De Niro, in an Oscar-winning performance). Screenwriters Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin employ an episodic structure as opposed to something more linear, and as a result, certain sequences are much more effective than others. Exacerbating matters is an incredibly slow, almost dull opening hour that doesn't really go anywhere; it's not until around halfway through that the film finally starts to build up some momentum, particularly as LaMotta begins his downward spiral into obscurity. Having said that, De Niro's legendary performance goes a long way towards keeping things interesting, while costar Joe Pesci is equally impressive as LaMotta's long-suffering brother. And then there's Martin Scorsese's direction, which is just as much a star as De Niro; along with cinematographer Michael Chapman, Scorsese imbues the film with a distinctive, memorable visual style that's rightly earned its place in cinematic history. Had the entire movie been as captivating as its appearance, Raging Bull would undoubtedly be worthy of the enormous amount of praise it's received over the years. As it stands, though, the film isn't nearly as effective as one might hope - despite a surfeit of extremely positive attributes.
The King of Comedy
The King of Comedy follows Robert De Niro's Rupert Pupkin, a mentally-unbalanced aspiring comic, as he kidnaps a famous talk-show host (Jerry Lewis' Jerry Langford) and holds him hostage, with the movie revolving around the battle of wills that subsequently ensues between the two men. It's clear immediately that director Martin Scorsese, working from Paul D. Zimmerman's screenplay, is looking to cultivate the atmosphere of a subdued character study, as the filmmaker places an ongoing emphasis on De Niro's seriously disturbed figure and details Pupkin's cringe-worthy day-to-day activities. (The latter is made emblematic by a fantastic stretch in which Pupkin repeatedly visits Langford's office, to progressively disastrous results.) The movie's watchable vibe is undoubtedly heightened by De Niro's consistently transfixing performance, with the actor stepping into the shoes of his thoroughly compelling character to a degree that's never anything less than captivating. It's just as clear, however, that Scorsese's low-key sensibilities pave the way for a second half that's not as engrossing or engaging as it should be, with the movie ultimately building to a padded-out final act that's lacking the punch Scorsese is clearly aiming for. (The film's conclusion, however, is just about perfect in its ambiguity.) The end result is an erratic yet rewarding little drama that remains a high-water mark in terms of De Niro's onscreen work, and it is, for the most part, not difficult to see why The King of Comedy has become something of a cult item in the years since its 1982 release.
The Color of Money
The Last Temptation of Christ
The Age of Innocence
My Voyage to Italy
Bringing Out the Dead
Gangs of New York (December 20/02)
Though director Martin Scorsese famously pared his four-hour original cut down to 165 minutes, Gangs of New York, which essentially details the battle between Daniel Day-Lewis' Bill the Butcher and Leonardo DiCaprio's Amsterdam Vallon, suffers from a palpably overlong feel that ultimately stands as an impossible-to-ignore deficiency. While the opening and closing fight sequences are fantastic, ranking with some of the best work Scorsese has ever done, everything in between isn't quite up to that level. The movie's always entertaining, to be sure, but after such an explosive opening, it's impossible not to become somewhat disappointed by the routine midsection. The plot, which deals mostly with the politics surrounding the war draft, isn't particularly interesting, and though Scorsese doesn't dwell on it, it does become a pivotal catalyst for the action that dominates the last 30 minutes. Still, Gangs of New York is easily one of the most ambitious movies to hit screens in a good long while, and it's one of those rare big-budget flicks that actually looks as though every penny was spent. And, of course, it's impossible to talk about the film without mentioning Day-Lewis' completely hypnotic performance. His Bill the Butcher is one of the most electrifying and mesmerizing characters to hit the big screen all year, and Day-Lewis' performance will certainly be remembered come Oscar time. He's so good that the other actors tend to be forgotten after the film's concluded, though DiCaprio does give a performance that proves he's more than just a pretty face. Gangs of New York will probably hold more interest for viewers interested in American history, but for the rest of us, the film is a diverting enough way to spend close to three hours.
No Direction Home: Bob Dylan
Shine a Light
Shutter Island (March 7/10)
Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, Shutter Island follows U.S. Marshals Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) as they attempt to solve the mystery of a missing patient at a remote mental hospital - with their ongoing efforts inevitably complicated by a whole host of external forces (including less-than-helpful officials, hurricane-type winds, and sadistic prisoners). It's clear right from the get-go that director Martin Scorsese is looking to emulate the style and tone of an old-school thriller, as the film - which certainly possesses flashes of B-movie brilliance - has been infused with a number of unabashedly over-the-top elements that prove an effective complement to Laeta Kalogridis' less-than-subtle screenplay. The above-average performances, in tandem with, among other things, Robert Richardson's stark cinematography and Dante Ferretti's impressively sinister production design, effectively cultivate an atmosphere of foreboding that is, initially, at least, impossible to resist, although there inevitably reaches a point wherein Scorsese's expectedly self-indulgent sensibilities hinder one's efforts at wholeheartedly embracing the increasingly convoluted narrative - with the repetitive midsection, which is devoted to a series of exposition-heavy, one-on-one confrontations between Teddy and the island's inhabitants, effectively wreaking havoc on the movie's momentum and dulling its overall impact. The strength of the third act ensures that Shutter Island ends on an admittedly strong note, yet the viewer is ultimately forced to walk away from the proceedings feeling more than a little disappointed - as Scorsese's refusal to cut out the narrative's overtly extraneous elements prevents the film from becoming the crackerjack thriller he clearly wants it to be.
No Direction Home: Bob Dylan
George Harrison: Living in the Material World
The Wolf of Wall Street (December 31/13)
The Wolf of Wall Street follows Leonard DiCaprio's Jordan Belfort as he ascends the ranks within the financial sector to eventually become a Gordon Gekko-like power player, with the movie detailing the character's exploits alongside a cast of unabashedly off-kilter supporting characters - including Jonah Hill's Donnie, Margot Robbie's Naomi, and Jon Bernthal's Brad. It's clear immediately that The Wolf of Wall Street marks a significant departure for filmmaker Martin Scorsese, as the movie boasts a freewheeling, lighthearted feel that one doesn't naturally associate with the venerable director - with the gleefully over-the-top atmosphere, which is reflected in everything from the performances to the dialogue to the visuals, ensuring that the movie is, at the outset, as watchable and engrossing as anything Scorsese's done in the last couple of decades. And although DiCaprio's almost remarkably captivating performance remains a highlight throughout, The Wolf of Wall Street suffers from an erratic sense of pacing that inevitably cancels out its positive attributes - as Scorsese, along with editor Thelma Schoonmaker, has infused the proceedings with a rough-cut feel that grows more and more problematic as time (slowly) progresses. There is, to an increasingly palpable degree, a lack of momentum here that's nothing short of disastrous, with the movie's hands-off vibe compounded by an emphasis on overlong and entirely needless sequences (eg Jordan and Donnie's bad trip on old quaaludes seems to go on forever). The inclusion of a few admittedly captivating interludes (eg Jordan meets with Kyle Chandler's straight-arrow FBI agent) alleviates the otherwise uninvolving atmosphere and cements the movie's place as, at the very least, a somewhat watchable piece of work, and yet given the massive amount of talent both in front of and behind the camera, The Wolf of Wall Street ultimately can't help but come off as both a massive disappointment and a missed opportunity.