Tag: martin scorsese

The Irishman


The Irishman (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” reaches full power only in its final seventy-five minutes—which is a long wait because the entire work is about three-and-a-half hours. Within this compelling final section, we observe two things: Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) betraying a friend during his time as a hitman for the Mafia and his family leaving him, Frank now a regretful elderly man who cannot even walk, in the nursing home to rot. The latter is a betrayal in itself—at least Frank’s mind. Because, for him, working for the Mafia for as long as he did was an act of protecting his family. In reality, however, the strangers he called friends could have just as quickly turned their backs on him. This is a story of a man who lost everything. And by the end he is nothing.

We meet numerous personalities within the Philadelphia crime family. The screenplay by Steven Zaillian is peppered with a wicked sense of humor, especially when the movie screeches to halt and right next to a man’s face is a quick description of how he would come to meet his demise. More savage is in how Scorsese focuses on the big personalities—like Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), one of the leaders of the Mafia, and Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), leader of the labor union International Brotherhood of Teamsters with an obsession for decorum and punctuality—and constantly puts them through a wringer. Bufalino and Hoffa are nearly complete opposites, in temperament and physicality, but Scorsese is so confident and so focused in communicating to us what gets under these men’s skins. Pesci and Pacino deliver strong, hypnotic performances—they are masters of keeping silent but saying more than enough. And De Niro matches their terrific performances every step of the way with seeming ease.

However, the majority of the film failed to engage me in a way that is completely enveloping. While showing Frank’s rise within the Mafia ranks is consistently beautifully photographed, especially in getting period details exactly right, the dialogue possessing a firecracker quality at times, and historical events are tied into the plot in a relatively seamless manner, I found nothing particularly fresh in the rising action. I felt as though the director has told this type of story before with far more energy and creativity in “Mean Streets,” “GoodFellas,” and “Casino.” It feels like dragging our feet while traversing a familiar pathway. It is without question that the work lags and sags in parts.

Another problematic element is the de-aging technology. While it is impressive to see the performers magically turn young, I urge you to look a little closer. Focus on the eyes. This technology fails to get the eyes right because a young face is often shown possessing old eyes. It is creepy at times, yes, and some may even find it amusing, but more problematic is the fact that it is highly distracting during the most dramatic or tense sequences. As a viewer who has made it a habit to really look into the eyes of the characters in order to try to understand what it is they really mean behind their words, silence, and actions, aged eyes not matching much younger faces is impossible to overlook.

An additional shortcoming, but to lesser degree of severity, is the occasional voiceover not quite matching the lips. A tighter editing might have helped to cover up the poor audio post production. But for a high caliber director like Scorsese, this is an elementary mistake; I found it insulting that the final product, from a technical standpoint, is this sloppy.

“The Irishman” is worth seeing at least once, but it is far from this master filmmaker’s best work. The intention to tell a sprawling but personal story is present, but I feel both the innovation when it comes to telling a fresh crime story and the discipline to ensure the presence of top-notch technological and technical elements are not always present. See it mainly for the performances.

Joker


Joker (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Todd Phillips’ “Joker” stares directly into the dark well of a man’s misery and asks the viewers to endure a series of highly uncomfortable, humiliating, and desperate situations. Although there are sudden, gruesome violence and plenty of blame to go around—government corruption, systems in place designed to keep the poor longing and powerless while the rich remain thriving and in charge, the way we choose to treat our neighbors—it trusts the audience to find empathy and compassion toward a person whose life is not without laughter but utterly, cripplingly devoid of joy. It is most appropriate that we meet Arthur Fleck, a clown by day and an aspiring standup comedian at night, from behind as he faces a mirror. Because in order to understand him, even appreciate him, we are required to take a look at ourselves.

The titular character may have comic book origins, but the film is a character study first and foremost. Each passing scene is a nudge toward inevitable villainy, but Arthur is never reduced to a cartoon. The work employs a hammer to showcase mental illness but it is necessary, in a way, because the character is larger than life. His life circumstances, however, are grounded in reality: he does not have a rewarding job, he is not respected by his peers (in fact, he is ridiculed or mocked), he has no friends, he is told he is not funny enough to be a comedian, and even strangers have a tendency to pick on him because he appears to be an easy target. People see him but not in ways he would like to be seen. Maybe that is worse than being invisible.

I felt deep sadness toward this character and Joaquin Phoenix does a superlative job in making us identify the person behind the supervillain name and clown make-up. Even when the camera is showing only his back, we can already feel the weight of Arthur’s depression, his frustration from being rejected again and again, and eventually his rage toward a society in which no one really gives a damn—it is in his posture, the movement of his back muscles, the way he breathes.

When the camera focuses on Arthur’s face, it is like reading an engaging novel. Here is a man craving to find meaning, to be regarded by somebody else as important—or relevant at the very least, to be wanted for his ordinariness, to be enough. It is a consummate performance and it is not just because of Phoenix’ skeletal frame or creepy laugh: Experiencing Arthur’s day-to-day existence is like watching a car wreck in slow motion. At one point we must wonder how much more can a person take. It is the kind of performance you don’t want to blink from because doing so might lead to missing a very telling information. Phoenix does not waste a moment.

It is appropriate that co-writer Phillips and Scott Silver take inspiration from Martin Scorsese’s pictures, “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy.” Images like the subject playing with a gun and aspiring to be shown on television are obvious—and I am not interested in that. I am interested, however, in the mixture of tone and feeling of the two classics, the former a psychological drama with thriller elements and the latter a satirical dark comedy. What results in “Joker” is a morbid sense of humor, an anti-joke, and an effective social commentary about personal and societal responsibility. I wager the work will stand the test of time.

The King of Comedy


The King of Comedy (1982)
★★★ / ★★★★

Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) is an unemployed aspiring stand-up comedian with a dream of headlining his own late-night talk show. Rupert is convinced that the way to achieve this goal is to persuade the successful Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) to get him coast-to-coast airtime for ten to fifteen minutes so that the country can discover his talent. But when Jerry avoids Rupert’s requests for appointments one too many times, the latter executes a drastic method to get exactly what he wants.

Written by Paul D. Zimmerman and directed by Martin Scorsese, “The King of Comedy” is sharp when it comes to its critique of celebrity obsession, so uncomfortable to sit through at times that I did not know whether to laugh or groan, and the themes it touches upon have become more relevant over the years especially now that we can follow our favorite celebrities in various social media. De Niro’s performance is one to be remembered.

It requires a bit of practice to be able to tell whether a scene is happening in actuality or only in Rupert’s mind. This is appropriate because we see the story through his eyes and he himself is not even aware between real and fantasy. There are even instances when he is so out of touch with reality, it fails to occur to him that certain courses of action he takes are considered criminal offenses. What matters to him is what he hopes to get out of a situation—to hell with consequences. And that is scary. We laugh at him and yet on some level we feel sorry for him. The screenplay is to be admired because it does not treat its subject like a caricature even though the picture is a satire.

There is one memorable scene right after another. One that stood out to me is the dinner between Rupert and a barkeeper named Rita (Diahnne Abbott). One is caught off-guard and assumes it is going to go smoothly… until Rupert steers the conversation into his dream of achieving fame and pulling out a book filled with his favorite stars’ autographs. While the scene is comedic, there is a sadness to it, too. Observe Abbott’s character very carefully. Rita just wants to have a nice, simple time with a man she sort of likes and yet instead of talking about one another, they are talking about other people. Instead of looking at each other, they are looking at pen marks on a white page.

Later, there is a fantasy wedding scene in which we get a chance to understand Rupert a bit more. There is an apology made about people in Rupert’s life not believing or not regarding him as important. It might explain his abnormal psychology, the irrationality of his fame-driven existence. Maybe being on television is proof that he is important. But then again perhaps it is all biology: brain circuitry gone awry or developmental problems when Rupert was a boy. There is a scene later on where Rupert makes jokes about his alcoholic parents. Perhaps there is truth there somewhere.

If I were to describe “The King of Comedy” in one word, it would be “relentless”—just like the main character. There is one awkward but telling scene right after another. Although Rupert Pupkin is obviously an extreme case of someone obsessed with attaining recognition, one still has to wonder: Why is it that many of us revere people just because they appear on television or the movies? Why are we not a society that shows the same level of enthusiasm for NASA engineers, scientists, mathematicians—those who make extraordinary contributions to society in order to make this world a better place to be in?

The Age of Innocence


The Age of Innocence (1993)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) is engaged to May Welland (Winona Ryder), but their wedding date is not yet picked out. Both come from what is considered to be good families in nineteenth century New York. On the other hand, May’s cousin, Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), is considered a pariah because she divorced her husband in Europe. Archer is convinced by those who still care for Ellen that he should be around her more often to make people feel less uneasy about being around her. As the two engage in conversations, Newland realizes that he is engaged to the wrong woman. While May offers stability, Ellen is exciting because deep down, like Newland, she considers formalities as mere trifles.

Based on Edith Wharton’s novel and directed by Martin Scorsese, “The Age of Innocence” is a sumptuous feast for the senses. The love story between Newland and May and Newland and Ellen has resonance because there is an absence of a traditional villain where one character actively tries to steal’s someone’s heart with vindictiveness. Instead, the enemy is the times, the rules that define an era, and the social conducts that connect the leading players. Because traditionalism must be strictly upheld, there is little room for deviation from the norm. Even the characters who consider the New York society as a joke must to keep their opinions behind closed doors. No one wants to be like Ellen, the subject of toxic gossip.

When the camera moves, it does so with purpose. For example, as rules for behaving and important figures are introduced by the narrator, the camera scans the lavish walls and points our attention to things that range from paintings as they are, the implications of hanging up certain artwork for friends and family to see, to the paint’s color that serve as a background for the works of art. It feels as though the material is forcing us to be as critical as the men and women who inhabit such a world. By allowing us to think about how they think, we are able to navigate ourselves through their own games.

When the camera finally stops to observe a group of conversing people, we look at them with a more critical eye. For instance, we are able to evaluate how they rank compared to one another through their body language, gender, and the way they are dressed. The director’s decision to take his time in pocketing us into this era is critical because the eventual happenings in the story, especially toward the end, involve a deception through the mundane customary social gatherings.

The heart of the picture is Newland and Ellen’s forbidden love. With each secret meeting and delayed gratification of the flesh, the more we want them to be together even though they are having was an affair. By rooting for them to consummate their feelings, it is, in a way, an indirect act of rebellion against the conventions of those times.

Based on the screenplay by Jay Cocks and Martin Scorsese, “The Age of Innocence” is pregnant with implications and excellent performances, even from supporting ones, particularly Miriam Margolyes as the influential but couch-ridden Mrs. Mingott. Good manners and warm smiles have never looked so poisonous.

The Wolf of Wall Street


The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

Black Monday sends Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) spinning back to square one. Having been hired in a Wall Street firm, he thought he had it made. And just like that—it appears as though his dream of making it rich has been squashed. But Jordan does not give up easily. He accepts a job working with penny stocks and it ends up being a success. Though his occupation involves taking money away of the investors, mostly people who do not have a lot of experience when it comes to stocks, an addiction needs to be fed and money is a great motivator. Soon, Jordan has his own company and he earns more than enough money than he knows what to do with.

Confession: I know next to nothing about stocks, investments, and Wall Street. Going into the film, I was not even aware that Jordan Belfort was a real person. Based on the subject’s memoir and adapted to the screen by Terence Winter, “The Wolf of Wall Street” is an entertaining dark comedy that benefits most from high energy direction by Martin Scorsese and a powerhouse performance by DiCaprio. Still, it is about an hour too long.

The picture is at its strongest when it traces Belfort’s humble beginnings. Seeing him without the drugs, the mansion, the yacht, and the prostitutes reminds us that although he will turn into a most unprincipled scam artist eventually, there is a recognizable person there. Here is a young man who is tired of being poor and who has dared to dream big. He is only an arm’s length away from what he has always wanted and nothing—not even the basic idea of right and wrong—can stop him.

The FBI subplot, the investigation led by Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), takes too long to get into full gear. About an hour in, we see a glimpse of the FBI agent and then he is never seen again for what it feels like another hour. As a result, suspense does not build. In the meantime, repetitive images of excess parade the screen. While I admired the nice watches and jewelry, beautiful interiors of the house, the Ferrari, and the like, I began to wonder when the film was finally going to move forward. This is a strange Scorsese picture in that it is highly energetic but it is not efficient. There is a difference between providing specifics and being mired in them.

I found the supporting performances to be quite bland. With the exception of Jonah Hill as Belfort’s right-hand man and McConaughey as Belfort’s short-lived boss, everyone else either relies on a quirk to stand out or does not bother to be memorable at all. The members of the latter group appear, say some lines and are forgotten until they are once again required to speak. Is a statement being made? Are the exciting characters exciting only because they are up to their eyeballs on drugs? Or is it that the performances are not carefully modulated?

There are certainly some elements to be enjoyed in “The Wolf of Wall Street”—mainly a few scenes depicting excess and debauchery, seeing DiCaprio having a ball with his character—but the film lacks dramatic depth. It feels too much like a music video at times. With a running time of three hours, rising just a bit above mediocrity is inexcusable.

The Last Temptation of Christ


The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
★★★ / ★★★★

Jesus of Nazareth (Willem Dafoe), a carpenter, journeys to Jerusalem, along with his friend, Judas (Harvey Keitel), to be crucified and die for the sins of all people.

Though the premise is familiar, this is not the version of Jesus polished by religious groups and popular culture. Based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, “The Last Temptation of Christ,” directed by Martin Scorsese, portrays Jesus Christ as both a divine being and, more interestingly, a man full of crippling self-doubt and contradictions.

What fascinated me was the qualities that made the title character human. Raised by Catholic parents and forced to attend school that requires religious studies for several years, I am somewhat familiar with Jesus’ journey to the cross including the key figures he encounters along the way. It is refreshing to see a different interpretation of the events compared to what is on traditional inscriptions and teachings. Scorsese approaches the material with confidence and tunnel vision focus. He honors the filmmaking by being true to what kind of story he wishes to make.

The relationship between Jesus and Judas is not exactly a friendship, even though the word is mustered once or twice, but a symbiosis between men of faith. Jesus’ decision to manipulate Judas, who desperately wants to believe that the son of God is completely devoted to what he is instructed to do, holds intrigue because the material tends to underline both characters’ flaws and fears. Their partnership unfolds in a logical way.

The film is shot beautifully. When the camera pulls back to absorb the beauty of the barren desert or quiescent lake as Jesus walks on the foreground, it is breathtaking. The experience is similar to looking at a postcard and on it is an inviting world. When the intense gust of wind dances around the unseen microphones, I felt transported.

However, the acting from some of the supporting actors is distracting. Keitel’s decision to maintain his Brooklyn accent is a constant reminder that he is an actor playing Judas. During his most serious scenes, I caught myself feeling detached because of the way he enunciates of certain words. Furthermore, Jesus’ angel (Juliette Caton), a little girl, is so doe-eyed and delivers her lines so heavily pure, I wondered why the director did not feel the urge to do more reshoots until her performance did not come across so forced. Either that or she should have been recast. It is necessary that Dafoe gives the most convincing performance. And he does.

“The Last Temptation of Christ,” based on the screenplay by Paul Schrader, is unjustly mired in controversy. I found it daring and, yes, even iconoclastic. But let us not forget that the movie is based on a novel. If your faith is as strong as you claim, you will not allow an interpretation to shake the foundation of your beliefs. If anything, you should keep an open-mind–which shows strength. What is deserving of fear are those people who think that what they believe in is completely, unwaveringly correct. There is a fine distinction between faith and zealotry.

New York, New York


New York, New York (1977)
★★★★ / ★★★★

It was 1945 and the Japanese had surrendered the war. During a party, charismatic Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro), a saxophonist, tried to get the attention of various women to no avail. The third woman he talked to, Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli), a USO singer, didn’t want to speak to him either but he insisted that he was worth her time. He figured that if they talked long enough, she would end up liking him. And she did. The two eventually got married, but being together for the rest of their lives didn’t seem like it was meant to be. “New York, New York,” based on the screenplay by Earl Mac Rauch and directed by Martin Scorsese, was a sincere portrayal of marriage that was about to hit the rocks. Instead of using its musical numbers to sugarcoat the realities of Jimmy and Francine’s time together, it used song and dance to reveal the inadequacies that they felt but didn’t have the courage to confront. Francine enjoyed her independence but when she found out that she was pregnant, there was a sudden shift in her priorities. Her love for the child took precedence and her love of music was relegated to second place. But for Jimmy, it wasn’t the case. When they met, he said that he loved three things, respectively: music, money, and women. When he found out he was going to be a father, his priorities didn’t shift and wasn’t willing to compromise. Their fights were ugly and heartbreaking, especially the scene in which Jimmy called the very pregnant Francine “disgusting,” the camera unblinking toward the seething anger and sadness that permeated between the two. De Niro and Minnelli’s performances had range and depth so their characters felt like real people. Since the characters had a complexity to them, it felt like we were a part of their lives and responding to the ups and downs of their relationship felt natural. Scorsese’s direction elevated the picture because it seemed like he allowed certain accidents–a blurb in the dialogue or an item that seemed out of place–to make the final cut. Also, I appreciated the small gestures like Francine playing with the buttons of Jimmy’s shirt as he was telling her something important. It was an image that we could easily see out in the world if we stopped and observed. There are criticisms involving the fifteen-minute musical montage called “Happy Endings.” Personally, though I agree to some extent that it disrupted the tone of the marriage drama, I appreciated the risk it had undertaken. While somewhat out of place, it remained focused on its overarching themes. The songs were not only incredibly catchy, they commented on the hardship of marriage. It wanted to communicate to us that a constant reevaluation of a relationship is not only healthy, it is necessary because it keeps us receptive of our as well as our partner’s wants and needs. “New York, New York” offered another layer by exploring contrasting elements: femininity and masculinity, independence and security, successes and failures, and love and friendship. Though not considered to be a success upon its release, it proved how audacious Scorsese could be as a filmmaker.