Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Film Review - Bringing Out the Dead

Film #48 of 2010 - Bringing Out the Dead

Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage) is a paramedic working the overnight shift in New York City, and it's safe to say that he's not a fan of his career choice. A recovering alcoholic who is unable to sleep because he is constantly haunted by the ghosts of patients he has lost, he practically begs his boss to fire him on a nightly basis. During one night's work, he and his partner Larry (John Goodman) answer a call to help a man who suffered a heart attack, and though he was pronounced dead, Frank manages to bring him back, though barely, because he has to be kept alive by machines and routine shocks from a defibrillator. That night, Frank also meets the man's estranged daughter Mary (Patricia Arquette) a former drug addict who is struggling with the way she left her relationship with her father. The two strike up an unusual friendship, but Frank's increasingly self-destructive behavior due to his own inner demons threaten to make him become completely unhinged.

Directed by Martin Scorsese, Bringing Out the Dead actually has a few similarities to one of his earlier pictures, the sublime Taxi Driver (1976). Among the similarities: both were written by Paul Schrader, take place mainly at night on the streets of NYC and feature a voice over narration by the main character. Unfortunately, other than a few other factors, the similarities end there, because unlike Taxi Driver, Bringing Out the Dead doesn't have a truly engaging and gripping storyline. The premise of the film is interesting, but unless you look at the film as more of a study of Frank's character, there isn't much more that you're going to get out of the film. Because I wasn't engaged in the film doesn't mean that I can't appreciate it as a whole, however.

Characters dominate Bringing Out the Dead, with a mostly superb cast, including Tom Sizemore (what a wasted talent he became) and Ving Rhames as a fellow paramedic who likes to mess with some of his patients and teach them a lesson "with the power of the holy spirit." I also chuckled every time I heard the fast-talking, foul-mouthed male dispatcher over the ambulance radio, because it was the voice of Martin Scorsese himself. I wish I could say the same for Patricia Arquette, but I've just never understood her appeal; she's so mediocre in everything that I've seen her in and this film was no exception. Nicolas Cage's performance was particularly outstanding, and he really moved the film along because he was so interesting. Looking worse than any of his patients, he looks like a zombie and cowers throughout most of the film, propelled by momentum, until he gets sudden bursts of activity where he becomes almost terrifying. His intensely expressive face and ability to switch from point A to point G with the snap of a finger is a reminder that at one point, he really did some great work and that the talent is there; we just need to hope he does better projects in the future so that his relevance is restored.

The production of Bringing Out the Dead is outstanding. Gritty, yet smooth, the somewhat grimy streets are slick and shiny with rain (though we don't see the rain fall) and teeming with action, and the neon lights are colorful and bright. Employing several flashy camera techniques, including quick cuts, and featuring an outstanding a scene with Frank and Mary that seemed to be acted in and then filmed in reverse, Bringing Out the Dead was visually thrilling. I just wish that the story was up to par with the rest of the film because there were many times I was completely bored and just fell back on looking at everything else about the film, but even a film nerd like me needs to have a vaguely interesting story to follow. I'm conflicted, because every time I decide that the movie just wasn't that good, it's mostly because of the story, and I can't discount the masterful direction, so while definitely not one of his best films, Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead is worth watching.

3 out of 5 stars

Monday, April 19, 2010

Film Review - Paranormal Activity

Film #46 of 2010 - Paranormal Activity

After a series of bizarre events in their home, Micah (Micah Sloat) and Katie (Katie Featherstone) decide to take further action. When Katie admits that she's felt a presence around her off and on since she was 8 years old, Micah gets a camera to document various disturbances around the house and to record them when they sleep, which is when the majority of the events happen. Katie calls a psychic in to help, but he suspects a demon is following Katie and suggests she speak to another man, a demonologist. Micah prefers to deal with things his own way, bringing in a Ouija board, tracking footsteps with powder, etc. which only serves to agitate whatever presence is in the house until the activities come to a head, with deadly results.

I had heard that Paranormal Activity, the feature film debut of Oren Peli, is similar in aesthetic and creep factor to The Blair Witch Project, and since the latter film messed me up pretty badly, I was expecting the same from the former. Though definitely very creepy, I think that the notoriety of Paranormal Activity was boosted by the hype surrounding it. I loved the fact that it was made so cheaply, and that it used unknown actors, and I think that, despite a really basic storyline, the thrills were successful. The film was largely improvised as well, (adding to the Blair Witch similarities) which I always find interesting, especially if done well, which it was here. Though I was creeped out by the ending, I thought the very end was kind of cheesy, and after hearing the alternative ending I would have liked to have seen that one attached instead, but it didn't kill the whole experience for me. I wasn't as scared as I thought I was going to be, but Paranormal Activity definitely gave me a lot to think about while I was laying in the dark trying to fall asleep the night I watched it.

If you're expecting to go into the film and be scared out of your wits like I thought I was going to be, you may come out disappointed. But if you're looking for a decent thriller of a movie then this is a great choice.

3 out of 5 stars

Film Review - The Color of Money

Film #45 of 2010 - The Color of Money

In The Color of Money, directed by Martin Scorsese, Vincent Lauria (Tom Cruise) is discovered by Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) when Vince plays pool for money in Eddie's bar and Vince's girlfriend Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) collects the cash. When Eddie sees how talented Vince is, he convinces the somewhat dim guy and his "street wise" girlfriend to go on the road with him for six weeks under his sponsorship, hustling for money in pool halls before the big pool tournament in Atlantic City. Along the way, Eddie, who has given up the game, starts to get his mojo back and Vince begins to learn the art of the hustle.

I wish I could say there was more to the story than this, but I've actually put a little more depth into the story than was really there. Though I was pleasantly surprised by an opening scene narration describing the art of nine ball by Scorsese himself, and later, John Turturro in a bit role, those were really the only things I could appreciate throughout the film. The Color of Money is a really basic movie, full of trite montages and closeups of pool tables and rolling balls. Probably as a defense mechanism, I concocted a whole subplot in my head about how Vince was actually hustling Eddie the whole time but just found myself depressed when that never actually came to fruition.

There are never any super slow moments in The Color of Money, but I suspect that you really have to like pool in order to appreciate the film because that's kind of all that happens for the majority of picture. I didn't actually like the music used in the film, but once again, Scorsese used it well. In terms of the acting, I was really surprised to find that Paul Newman won a Best Actor Oscar for his role because all he really did was growl his lines, to the point where I had to keep turning up the television in order to understand the guy. This was early in Tom Cruise's career, though he was already a screen idol and a complete spaz, but to his credit, his character called for that behavior for the most part. When he wasn't spazzing he just had a deer in the headlights look, which was mildly humorous.

I can't leave out the fact that The Color of Money commits one of my personal mortal transgressions: it ends in a freeze frame, which is probably how my face looked during the closing credits - frozen. I guess I have come to expect so much more out of Scorsese films that I am surprised that he would have produced something so straightforward and banal. I realize they can't all be home runs, so my feelings about The Color of Money don't color my opinion about Scorsese the man, but at least with dialogue like, "Pool excellence is not excellent pool" I at least got a few laughs out of the deal.

2 out of 5 stars

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Film Review - No Direction Home: Bob Dylan

Film #44 of 2010 - No Direction Home: Bob Dylan

Directed by Martin Scorsese, No Direction Home is an exhaustive, 3 1/2 hour documentary about folk/rock icon Bob Dylan that examines not just the work of Dylan, but the explosive historical time period during which he first found success. Scorsese covers Dylan's (then Robert Zimmerman) childhood in Minnesota, but doesn't do much more than gloss over it, opting to first concentrate on when he became "Bob Dylan," (name inspired by poet Dylan Thomas) the young man who discovered the music of legends Robert Johnson and Woody Guthrie, among others, and moved to New York to play their music on his acoustic guitar and his harmonica hung around his neck. While the focus is on Dylan, Scorsese also presents what is happening socially, politically and musically during this time, and in the early 1960's before the civil rights movement really exploded, folk music was alive with a rabid fan base, but the mainstream successes were velvet-voiced singers like Johnny Mathis. When Dylan breaks through with his own songs he is quickly hailed as "the voice of his generation" and though he wanted success all along, the labels thrust upon him, particularly political ones, were not what he was looking for. When his style evolved into the introduction of electric guitars, a full band and a fair amount of distortion, he was called a traitor by his purist folk audience while becoming a bona fide rock star with the ever-changing mainstream audience. Specifically focusing on Dylan's career until 1965 when he suffered a terrible motorcycle accident, No Direction Home brings the early 1960's to life through the artists and musicians who worked with Dylan and we hear about it from Dylan himself.

I'm a really big fan of documentaries, and even entertained the idea of becoming a documentary filmmaker when I first entered film school. I've been known to say that I would give a documentary about paint drying a chance because I am so interested in the genre, but whether I actually end up liking the film or its subject(s) is another matter entirely. Not knowing a lot about Bob Dylan other than the fact that he has almost become a caricature by this point, (everybody has a bad Dylan impression, myself included) I will fully admit that, although I knew Scorsese would churn out a well done film, I wasn't too thrilled about watching a really long piece about someone whose music I didn't really care for. I can honestly say that within the first few minutes of the film, all preconceptions were out the window and I was quite riveted.

Though it may sound strange, I think that some of the interest was in seeing Dylan himself being interviewed today, mainly because since I've been alive, he's been an iconic figure whose musical footage may be shown, but how often do you hear him talk? As it turns out, he is soft spoken, with a slight Midwestern twang to his voice; forthcoming and intelligent. He alternates between looking down, almost shyly, as he speaks, and gazing directly at the unseen interviewer next to the camera. Scorsese relies on footage and pictures to tell the majority of the story, however, and interviewing many of the people who were in those photos and films really bring the events to life. Folk musicians like Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and Peter Yarrow are interviewed as well as impresarios and producers of the era like Mitch Miller and friends like author Allen Ginsberg.

Scorsese apparently had unprecedented access to footage and photos and it really shows in the quality of the materials. There are hundreds of black and white still photos of Dylan that are absolutely stunning, and footage of his performances, whether on The Steve Allen Show or the Newport Folk Festival is captivating. He is somewhat shy and uncomfortable until he sings, and then it almost becomes theater, with his face earnestly conveying the emotions of his lyrics. There is a lot of back stage footage of Dylan exhibiting a really dry wit, and then in the next scene he's giggling with band mates like a teenager. His cleverness and exasperation with reporters is apparent in several featured press conferences, including one in which a long winded reporter asks a rambling question that basically ended up being, "How many singers out there do protest songs?" Dylan shoots him a look and repeats, "How many singers do protest songs?" almost giving the reporter the chance to back out of the stupid question, but when the reporter nods, Dylan simply says, "136." which made me laugh really hard. There is also famous footage included, such as parts of D.A. Pennebaker's film, Don't Look Back, in particular the infamous "cue card" scene featuring the song Subterranean Homesick Blues, and Andy Warhol's 1965 "Screen Test" film.

Scorsese bookends the film with footage from concerts in England in 1965 when much of his fan base were so shocked and dismayed by his transition to electric from acoustic that they would boo and scream names at him, which never failed to amaze me, and apparently, Dylan himself, who would wonder why they paid for tickets to just scream epithets. My favorite part actually takes place at the end of the film. Dylan, who had recently shown obvious signs of burnout and exhaustion from having to deal with the success and everything thrust upon him, walks on to the stage as someone yells, "Judas!" Dylan turns to his band and you hear him say, "Play it fucking loud" and the band bursts into a really loud and rousing electric rendition of "Like a Rolling Stone." It was just a really great kiss off moment and perfectly placed at the end after the viewer has learned how complicated the previous five short years actually were.

No Direction Home, of course, is about music, and there is a lot of it, performed by Dylan and by many others. However, I think that a lot of the attraction of the film is Dylan himself, the man behind the icon. There are a lot of times when people, both famous and infamous, look back on their lives and sugar coat what may have happened, or claim ignorance in order to show themselves in a better light. In No Direction Home, Dylan seems to address unanswered questions and defend decisions he made 40 years ago, and it is all consistent with what footage from that time showed: that he was just a guy who wanted to make music, that although he had political feelings, he didn't want them to interfere with his career, and that he didn't turn his back on his folk roots, he simply evolved. Unfortunately, it seems not many people understood that. The irony of my empathy while watching the film is not lost on me, nor is my newly found appreciation of Dylan and his music. In fact, while I was compiling my thoughts about this review I realized that I listened to "Hard Rain" about three times before beginning writing. Though I would not consider myself a fan, (yet) I have to give Scorsese an enormous amount of credit for creating a documentary that actually made me like a subject I previously had such ambivalence for, and I would recommend No Direction Home to anyone interested in music and the 1960's, not just Dylan. Don't let the run time scare you off - it can definitely be broken down and watched in increments, though you may find that you may end up not wanting to.

4 stars out of 5

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Film Review - Who's That Knocking At My Door

Film #42 of 2010 - Who's That Knocking At My Door

J.R. (Harvey Keitel) is your typical unambitious young guy in New York in the late 1960's; he carouses with his friends, drinking and getting into physical scrapes with other guys from the neighborhood, he is between jobs, and lives at home with his mom. His life truly revolves around his friends until he meets "the girl" (Zina Bethune) on the Staten Island ferry. Though the initial conversation is slightly awkward, the two begin to make a connection, and the majority of the rest of the film alternates between his burgeoning romance with her, and his "normal" life with his friends. He is respectful and gentle around the girl, even going so far as to not sleep with her because he wants to keep her "chaste", which is in contrast to his behavior around his friends: though he seems to be one of the more reserved and quiet members of his group, he still enjoys the carousing. When the girl decides to share the fact that she is not a virgin because she was raped by a boyfriend a couple of years prior, J.R. responds with disdain, blaming her for getting herself into the situation in the first place. In his eyes, she is tainted, and she's no longer good enough for him. Later, he decides that he can "forgive" her, but she has to decide whether her self-respect will allow herself to take him back.

*Spoilers from here on out, but nothing that should deter you from watching the film*

Who's That Knocking At My Door started out as Scorsese's final project at NYU film school, generally consisting of scenes with J.R. and his friends. The film began to evolve into his first feature film when Scorsese added in the romantic plot between J.R. and the girl, and after a couple of years of filming as money came in, he found a distributor who offered to buy and release the film under the condition that Scorsese turn it into a sexploitation film. The end result is a really well fleshed out film that includes a fantasy sex scene with a couple of hookers that is actually stunning and beautifully filmed (with male and female frontal nudity to boot!).

The film is black and white, and the cinematography vacillates between crispness and dark and shadowy, which may be a result of the age and quality of the film or simply a stylistic decision. Regardless, the photography is fantastic and I felt like I was looking at the work of street photographers of the 1940's and 1950's most of the time. Scorsese's camera work is astonishing; though there were a number of fantastic overhead shots, the scene in which J.R. and the girl meet and converse for the first time is great. Instead of having a potentially boring one, two or three camera shot facing the subjects, he moves the camera, creating fluidity and movement that not only engages the audience but make the scene much more intimate. It helps that the lead actors were as natural as they were, considering their relative inexperience. Zina Bethune was the most experienced of the group, with a few soap opera roles under her belt, but when filming began back in 1965, Harvey Keitel had answered an ad for actors and filming had to be done around his day job as a court reporter.

One of Scorsese's strengths has been his use of music in his films, and Who's That Knocking At My Door shows that this was a strength from the beginning. Loud, energetic songs from the 1960's permeate the soundtrack and punctuate scenes with uncanny expertise. There is a scene in the middle of the film where the guys are carousing in an apartment when someone pulls out a gun as a joke. Scorsese uses slow motion in the scene, and the composition is exquisite: contorted bodies doubled over in laughter, the look of terror on the guy that has had the gun pulled on him. Throughout the scene, there is an energetic song playing, and he segues this scene and the next with a bunch of shotgun sounds, closeups of classic western film posters and then a shot of J.R. and the girl walking out of the film Rio Bravo to the song "Shotgun". It may sound obvious on paper, but it's exquisite in execution.

The entire feel of the film was that of New Wave and Neo-Realist films of mid-century Europe that have had a huge impact and influence on Scorsese's life and career, and I'm sure that was no accident. If Who's That Knocking At My Door was merely independent cinema eye candy it would still be fulfilling, but Scorsese also wrote a really simple but good love story that starts out sweet but goes bad. Considering how much the love story had to compete with the rest of the film for screen time, it was really well mapped out and compelling. The end of the film was disturbing and breathtaking, with J.R. returning to the girl, who is so grateful to see him again because they are in love. His words to her are, "I understand now and I forgive you. I'm going to marry you anyway." The look on her face is unforgettable, she is completely stunned. He, of course thinking that he is being chivalrous, can't believe that she wouldn't thank him, and when she doesn't, he completely breaks character, screaming at her, "Who is going to marry you, you whore?" before she inevitably throws him out. What follows is a sequence of shots with the song, "Who's That Knocking At My Door?" playing in the background: J.R. going to confession, various shots of religious iconography, then suddenly a closeup of the girl's face with her blood curdling scream during her rape and then J.R. just moving on with his life, laughing with friends. I was actually left breathless (probably because I was so startled by the closeup and the scream) but that feeling really extends to the movie in general.

Watching Who's That Knocking At My Door was such a wonderful experience, and the film nerd in me went into overdrive because I couldn't help thinking about how exciting it was that I was watching Scorsese's first film and that it was actually really good. I also really enjoyed seeing his influences come to life in his own work, knowing what films have been influential to him from seeing his documentaries My Voyage to Italy and A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies. But what I truly loved was that, despite the high polish of his films made since the 1970's, his independent spirit was there from the beginning; when he was told to sex up the film in order for people to see it, he did, but he did it beautifully and artistically. He used relatives' apartments and his neighborhood haunts (including its church) for locations. Having covered an international film festival for five years, after seeing the "Official Selection" badge from the Chicago International Film Festival before the main titles, I also really envied those people sitting in the audience who were able to experience this film at that time, for the first time. I don't know if anyone who doesn't have a love for independent cinema is going to appreciate Who's That Knocking At My Door, but I would highly recommend giving it a shot.

4 stars out of 5

Monday, April 12, 2010

Film Review - Boxcar Bertha

Film #41 of 2010 - Boxcar Bertha

Boxcar Bertha, directed by Martin Scorsese in 1972 stars Barbara Hershey as Bertha, a young woman living in the South during The Great Depression who witnesses the her father's death after his crop dusting plane crashes. Having no one, she immediately takes off on the rails and hooks up with and strikes up a romance with a union organizer, Bill Shelly (David Carradine). When the two are separated, she ends up with a Yankee gambler, Rake Brown (Barry Primus) and when she later reunites with Bill and her old friend Von (Bernie Casey), Rake completes their quartet of thieves, usually the theft of train cars. In addition to the police, the train magnates have sent their thugs after them because of Bill's union affiliations, landing them in various prisons and, when they are able to escape, running for their lives.

Boxcar Bertha was intended to be an exploitation film, and it truly was, with a lot of unnecessary shots of Barbara Hershey's legs (she really looks like a guy when she's filmed naked from the back) and lots of languid and sweaty bodies. The film almost seems like a series of vignettes rather than a complete film, and the scenes are jarring and lack any sort of fluidity. There were also a lot of odd cutaway shots and strange closeups. As an audience, we are asked to embrace a surprising number of coincidences, usually in regard to the group being separated and then somehow meeting up with one another again. After a while, I started to chuckle because of course Bertha was going to run into Von in a bar after being separated for quite some time and who knows how many states. The acting is nothing to write home about; Barbara Hershey hasn't really evolved, her lips have just gotten bigger. The only truly notable thing is that they managed to prop John Carradine up for a couple of scenes in the film.

Having said all that, the film was produced by Roger Corman, and it does have the cool vibe of an exploitation film, plus the staggering amount of violence, particularly in the end of the film was reminiscent of a Peckinpah film and actually pretty shocking. The film also simply ends, which was actually kind of disturbing and disconcerting, but I actually really liked that aspect. I can't give Boxcar Bertha a great rating just because it was an early effort by Scorsese, and it did have more negatives than positives, but I actually ended up thinking it was better than I thought I would when I initially sat through the first few scenes.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, April 9, 2010

Film Review - New York, New York

Film #40 of 2010 - New York, New York

Opening with the iconic scenery of V-J Day in Times Square in New York, Martin Scorsese's 1977 film New York, New York follows former G.I. and current musician Jimmy Doyle (Robert DeNiro) in a quest to hook up with a girl and celebrate the evening in style. After striking out with several women, he comes across Francine Evans, (Liza Minnelli) a former WAC who also shoots him down, but their witty banter indicates that she is playing hard to get and he's actually interested. After a couple of serendipitous situations, they finally get together, get married, and, since she is actually a singer, they proceed to literally make beautiful music together, traveling the country with a swing band. It soon becomes clear that the rising star is Francine, and soon after they start up their own swing band, when she becomes pregnant with their first child, she moves back to New York to do studio work while Jimmy continues on until the band ultimately fails. Back in New York, Jimmy, already insecure and slightly abusive, struggles with doing what's right for his family and participating in the emerging jazz scene, his obvious true love. Ultimately, the two discover that though they have a mutual attraction and affection for one another, they can only succeed if they are apart.

Scorsese was obviously paying homage to the musicals of the 30's and 40's, from the decision to film it full frame and not wide screen to the obvious sound stages, to the musical montages showing "progress!" The sets are sparse, simple and intentionally theatrical; sometimes they look fake, but that is clearly the intended aesthetic. One thing that I really liked about the film is that nothing is really announced in the film; rather, things just happen, leaving the audience to draw its own conclusions. (For example, when the audiences dwindle after Francine has left the band to return to New York, that is really the first time that we actually have concrete evidence that she was the draw all along.) DeNiro is once again fantastic in another unlikeable role. Jimmy is a complete child who sees Francine's doormat tendencies and completely manipulates her until she finally stands up for herself. The result? He leaves her. I'm not a big fan of Liza, but she's solid in this film, and she gives one hell of a performance of the title song, which I thought was much older than this movie, but turns out to be a product of the film.

Unfortunately, other than a particularly great ending (in that it was not-so-happy, but perfect) there wasn't much else I liked about the film. In an attempt to be epic, it actually came across as overblown and needlessly long. There is a completely nonsensical music number lasting about 20 minutes near the end of the film that makes the movie, which had already been on for well over two hours, come screeching to a halt, and did nothing more than serve as a major irritant. Before that part I was just really tepid about the film, but during and after that long scene I actually started to actively dislike it. Though I've mellowed out a little in the couple of days that I've watched the film, I still think New York, New York is definitely one of Scorsese's missteps. But hey, I guess the guy has earned a couple of those.

2 out of 5 stars

Film Review - The King of Comedy

Film #39 of 2010 - The King of Comedy

Rupert Pupkin (Robert DeNiro) is an aspiring comedian who is the prototypical loser; underemployed, a grown man living in his Mom's basement, all of the usual sociological markers. He's also completely delusional and stalks Jerry Langford, (Jerry Lewis) a successful comedian and talk show host (a la Johnny Carson) in order to get a spot on his show to showcase his comedy bit. One night after a taping, when Jerry is mobbed by a crowd outside the stage door and attacked by another stalker, Masha (Sandra Bernhard) Rupert sees an opportunity to help Jerry into his waiting car, where he proceeds to talk his ear off for the short drive to Jerry's apartment building. When Jerry gives him a brush-off line of "Call my office" after Rupert asks him for a chance, Rupert predictably runs with it, assumes he and Jerry are now best friends, and thus begins a bizarre and somewhat dangerous sequence of events that fit the psychological mold, but end unpredictably.

The King of Comedy is brilliant, and also really uncomfortable to watch. DeNiro plays a character that is every bit as deranged as Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle, but is actually much more dangerous because though seemingly affable, nearly everything that comes out of Rupert's mouth has an undertone of thinly veiled hostility. I found myself unconsciously sinking lower and lower into my chair as the film progressed because he was subtly becoming more unhinged and scary with every scene. Unlike the obvious craziness of Bernhard's character, where she is outwardly out of control, Rupert's demeanor is much more menacing underneath his wide smile. Jerry Lewis, playing the "straight man" for once (that I know of) is actually quite good as well; under Scorsese's direction, he gives a really subtle portrayal of a guy who is outwardly on top of the world but actually lives a completely solitary existence, possibly of his own making. He and Rupert turn out to be not as far apart in their lives as one may assume, which lends a fantastically complex element to the film. Also, the film is psychologically fascinating because as we get to know Rupert better, we realize that he doesn't actually want to befriend Jerry, he wants to be Jerry, and in fact, better than Jerry, but without all of the work involved. What we find is that if you mix fame and notoriety, in the end, you'll ultimately succeed.

Scorsese does a great job with The King of Comedy, allowing his actors an obviously large amount of latitude for improvisation with their dialogue, and giving bright colors to a film that is truly very dark, which creates an even more unsettling feeling for the viewer. There are several fantasy scenes scattered throughout the film that are so seamless that it takes one or two of them to realize that they are indeed in Rupert's head, mainly because as the film progresses, the more ridiculous the scenarios become. Scorsese utilizes some really great stark imagery in a couple of scenes of the film that are a wonderful contrast to the vibrancy of the rest of the film. In particular, there is a moment in Rupert's basement bedroom where, among life-sized cutouts of Jerry and Liza Minnelli, Rupert does some of his act in front of a wall-sized photograph of a laughing audience. It's an absolutely breathtaking shot.

The King of Comedy is indeed a comedy, but it's dark. There were several times that I laughed out loud, and many times when I squirmed in my seat, but this isn't a film that is going to get anyone down or ruin someones day. Rather, it is searing social commentary, particularly about the role of television and the fame -and infamy- it provides to those who either earn their fame through talent or through sheer outrageousness. Though Network addressed this 10 years prior, The King of Comedy picks up where it left off, and makes some pretty unholy predictions about the wave of reality television that would follow more than 15 years after it was released. As Rupert says, "Better to be a king for a night than a schmuck for a lifetime." If we haven't already seen people act this statement out ad nauseum on television, then you can surely turn on the television tonight and see this philosophy at work.

4 out of 5 stars

Film Review - My Voyage to Italy

Film #38 of 2010 - My Voyage to Italy

"I saw these movies. They had a powerful effect on me. You should see them," says Martin Scorsese in the introduction to his epic, nearly 5 hour documentary about Italian films of the 1940's-1960's that impacted his life and his future as a film director, My Voyage to Italy.

The film begins with a family history, and home movies. Growing up in New York, Scorsese's relatives mostly came from Sicily, and his neighborhood was like an extension of their homeland. In fact, there were so many Italians and Sicilians living in NY that there was a channel on television that showed many Italian films, and people would gather in front of the few sets in his neighborhood to watch them. Of these events, Scorsese states, "My world, which consisted of my apartment, the church, the school down the block and the candy store suddenly became bigger."

Like his previous documentary, A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, My Voyage to Italy is dense with information, but approachable due to Scorsese's enthusiasm and conversational style. In his narration, he is both mentor and educator, analyzing both commercial successes and lesser-known films with equal depth. Focusing mainly on the Neo-Realism movement, the seed from which post-war Italian cinema grew and a genre that emerged from crumbling post-war countries that saw rampant poverty, destruction and unemployment, these films told the gritty stories of their reality. Scorsese mainly focuses on films by Roberto Rossellini (Paisan, Voyage to Italy), Vittorio de Sica (The Bicycle Thief, Umberto D.) and Luchino Visconti (Obsession, Senso). I loved that there were a lot of films featured I had never heard of, and also really liked hearing Scorsese talk about films I am both familiar with and have a deep appreciation for, like The Bicycle Thief.

In Neo-Realism, things just happen and everything simply unfolds, as in life. Scorsese likens the clarity of vision in this genre to have almost a religious impact on him, and the forthrightness is both thought-provoking and jarring. For example, in Rossellini's 1947 film, Germany Year Zero, there is a scene where a young German boy, about 10 years old who, in complete despair, commits suicide by jumping from his bombed out apartment's window. The difference (other than subject matter) between this kind of film and American films of the time? You actually see him land, face down. While discussing de Sica's films, which are films of powerful simplicity (even the comedies), Scorsese mentions that Orson Welles once said of de Sica's work, "I could never do what he did with his films; he made the camera disappear." This statement could be analyzed to hell, particularly if you hypothesize the role of egotism in directing, but egomaniacal or not, Welles hit the nail on the head with his statement.

Later, Scorsese focuses on directors that got their start on the crews of these Neo-Realist films, like Federico Fellini and Michelango Antonioni, and I was surprised to learn that Fellini's 8 1/2 is one of Scorsese's biggest influences, simply because it is one of the more well known classic Italian films ever made. Though I wished that there were other Fellini films highlighted, Scorsese is so knowledgeable and interesting that I didn't mind learning more about it, especially in light of the long list of films I now have to watch based on the previous 3 hours of the documentary.

My Voyage to Italy is an excellent documentary and well worth the time investment, but only for true film lovers and especially foreign film lovers. Sometimes it takes a documentary like this one, or even just seeing a great foreign film, to realize all of the excellent foreign films we probably miss in our lifetime. Because Neo-Realism is one of my favorite genres, I was riveted from start to finish, but Scorsese makes no bones about the fact that these are the films that influenced him and nothing more, and that is why he sometimes spends up to a half hour discussing one film alone, something that might be cumbersome for a casual viewer. Scorsese is at heart a film buff, and because of his deep appreciation and vast breadth of knowledge, he is an educator who clearly desires to share his love of cinema and those films that influence him, without an ounce of ego: "If I hadn't seen these movies I wouldn't be the filmmaker I am today."

4 out of 5 stars

Film Review - Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore

Film #37 of 2010 - Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore

Directed by Martin Scorsese, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore stars Ellen Burstyn as Alice Hyatt, a former lounge singer whose family life is miserable and stressful due to an abusive husband and a smart alecky adolescent son, Tommy. When her husband suddenly dies in an accident, Alice is scared for their future, but makes a promise to her son that they will go back to where she lived as a child, Monterey, California, and she will resume her singing career. They set off on the road, but due to a lack of funds, Alice needs to find work in order to get them to their destination. At first, she finds a singing job at a cheesy lounge in Arizona, but a relationship with another frighteningly abusive man (played by a really young Harvey Keitel) causes she and Tommy to flee for their lives, landing them in Phoenix with Alice working as a neophyte waitress in a busy diner. Though she isn't looking for love, she begins to fall for David (Kris Kristofferson) which causes her to make the choice of whether she can let him into her busy life or continue to pursue her original dream.

Watching Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore after having seen most of the "iconic" Scorsese films of the late seventies to the present was both refreshing and slightly jarring. Ellen Burstyn had her choice of directors for this picture, and when she interviewed Scorsese, she expressed her concerns that, based on his prior work, he didn't "know how to direct women." Scorsese apparently conceded this fact but said that he would love to learn, and the rest is history. I think that, based on his filmography since, it is safe to say that his comfort zone is having male-centric films, but within most of those films, there is at least one strong female character; Lorraine Bracco in Goodfellas and Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver immediately come to mind.

Scorsese handles the material he was given well in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, but it is important to point out that truthfully, the material was not all that challenging. It's a "chick flick", but it's well done and Burstyn does a great job in her role. There are no mobsters and no iconic shots (though once or twice I caught the signature "sped up close up" Scorsese shot, which actually seemed out of place) but in a character driven film, that isn't necessary. Ultimately, this is a story about a woman who is forced to start over at a time when she is at her most vulnerable, and it's a love story. I enjoyed watching it, but when I finished it just kind of went, "Okay, now I've seen it." There isn't anything wrong with it, but it's also not great or epic cinema. And maybe, based on everything else that Scorsese is now known for, that is ultimately a testimony to his range.

3 out of 5 stars