Silence (2016)

Silence (2016) movie poster

director Martin Scorsese
viewed: 01/16/2017 at Embarcadero Center Cinema, SF, CA

Silence is a film that Martin Scorsese tried to get made for some 25 years or so. It’s adapted from a novel by Shūsaku Endō, published in the 1960’s, about Japan’s Kakure Kirishitan (“Hidden Christians”), a period in the Edo era when Christianity was harshly and brutally abolished. The Japanese pushed out all outsiders and cut trade with everyone but the Dutch.

The priests initially were tortured to death, but eventually the authorities moved from martyring priests to torturing to Christians themselves, making the priests complicit and forcing them to endure seeing brutality laid out on others, urging them to apostatize.

And that is the setting of our story, with Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield as two Portuguese priests seeking out an old teacher (Liam Neeson) who has reportedly apostatized. They sneak into the country and quickly learn the danger and reality of the situation.

For Scorsese, it’s very much about “faith” and the questions and passions and meaning of it all through the eyes of Garfield’s Rodrigues. Amazed at the devotion of the Japanese Christians, he is horrified at the terrors unleashed upon them, that they suffer and die for no good reason. His faith is tested to the very core, forcing him to decide if renouncing and apostatizing publicly is worse than selfishly holding out while others are maimed and murdered before his eyes.

Beautifully shot by Rodrigo Prieto, Silence is a powerful and interesting film. Even though the film was shot in Taipei and Taiwan, it seems very aware of classic Japanese cinema, though not really in homage, per se. The cast is very good; Andrew Garfield impressed me, and I really liked Issey Ogata as Inoue Masashige, the harsh inquisitor with bevy of quirks.

Scorsese’s take seems ultimately in honor of the devout of the story, the Jesuit Catholics, the passionate, humble Kakure Krishitans, and the closing image certainly spells out where the heart is.

That said, there is much to contemplate throughout, from the basis in historical truths to the nature of secular humanity, imperialist religion versus protecting indigenous culture and religion. And perhaps most timely, the vicious crackdown on a religious group.

With Silence and, though in contrast in style and subject matter, The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), Scorsese has made two of his strongest films in decades, still going strong in his 70’s.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)  movie poster

director Martin Scorsese
viewed: 05/04/2014

The hype around Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street was that it was perhaps his best film since Goodfellas (1990).  I haven’t seen all of his films since Goodfellas and so I don’t know if I can utterly draw that conclusion but I do definitely think it’s a great film and certainly among his best.  In fact, I was really surprised to like it as much as I did.  And I like Martin Scorsese.

It’s a return in a way to a style like Goodfellas, a narrative adapted from a memoir depicting the decadent life of a criminal spinning in up over to an ultimate capture and end to his career.  And winding up turning on his cronies, state’s evidence and such, doing some time, and living to write the memoir.

Only in Goodfellas, it’s the mob.  The real mob.  And in The Wolf of Wall Street, it’s the brokers and businesspeople who live the large life in a facade of legitimate business, right out in the open, not necessarily physically harming anyone, but enacting massive white collar crimes, bilking millions of dollars, and bilking the universe.  The crimes are both less audacious and more audacious, and the prison sentences are sadly less significant.

It’s the true story of broker Jordan Belfort’s rise and fall, the glory of cashing in on a penny stock “boiler room” and eventual serious fraud and stock market manipulation.  The decadence, though, is astronomical.  And Leonard DiCaprio has never been better as this rock star/evangelical/motivational leader/sleazebag than anywhere else.

At three hours long, it’s pure epic territory.  It seems like Scorsese couldn’t make a 90 minute movie to save his life.  But for being three hours long, the film is a rock’n’roll rollercoaster of comic indulgence and bad behavior.  The film uses the word “fuck” 569 times in that time span, a sort of analogue to the cheap, crass insanity the film embodies.

The movie is often hilarious.  The scene when DiCaprio downs some holy, long lost ‘ludes and loses all motor function but still manages to crawl to his car, drive home, and give his buddy Donnie (a very fine Jonah Hill) mouth-to-mouth resuscitation when he chokes on some sandwich meat, is truly a comic masterpiece.  I guess I wasn’t anticipating the film to be quite as comic as it is.  But it is funny.

Funny, crass, and revels in its unchecked  criminality, I do like Martin Scorsese and I do think that The Wolf of Wall Street is a solid addition to any list of his best films.  For whatever morality tries to lie at the heart of Jordan Belfort, the story is in many ways an indictment of the systems.  He ripped people off, committed fraud, all kinds of financial scams and crimes, spent less than 3 years in jail and is now a rich motivational speaker, even cashing in $1 million dollars on his memoir and, heck (or fuck perhaps I should say) even on this movie.

Decadence done. Repentance none.

Cape Fear (1991)

Cape Fear (1991) movie poster

director Martin Scorsese
viewed: 01/03/2014

Overall, I don’t really recommend doing this.  Watching a classic film followed right afterwards by its remake.  Well, even a not-so-classic film.  The last time I did this was Fright Night (1985) / Fright Night (2011).  One reason, if for no other, not to do this is simply the repetition of the story elements.  It’s better, probably, to separate the two viewings.

But I chose to watch Cape Fear (1962) and Cape Fear (1991) because they were available together On Demand from Movieplex and it had been a long time for me with both films, and though the remake wasn’t very good, it was by Martin Scorsese so seemed worth the revisiting.

Back in 1991, I recall seeing Cape Fear at a $2 movie theater in Colma, CA.  It was kind of a big film at the time and got some Oscar buzz.  I hadn’t seen the original film.

Well, frankly, one can sort of see why Scorsese would think there was something to remaking this film about a child-rapist tormenting the family of an attorney who helped put him in prison.  In 1962, for instance, they couldn’t even say “rape”.  The sexual malice and violence is largely suggested but not depicted.  And the stalking aspect of the narrative has become more understood and defined as a crime.  And lastly, what if the moral ambiguity was added in to the attorney character that Gregory Peck had played as the most upright of American citizens?  He cheats on his wife.  He is a somewhat corrupt lawyer.  And the teenage daughter…she’s not just some cute thing but sexually precocious.

Well, let’s put it this way.  Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck versus Robert De Niro and Nick Nolte (?)  As good as De Niro is, he can’t match Robert Mitchum’s outstanding portrayal of sleaze.  But Scorsese does get Mitchum and Peck back in the film.  Mitchum actually has a fairly substantial role.  This is typical tip-of-the-hat stuff these days when doing a remake.

The whole film strains hard to develop menace and presence, but it’s nowhere the film the original is.  None of the inventions are better, save one: Juliette Lewis as the teen.  It’s funny but I remember finding her annoying back in 1991, but recalled some critic who raved about her (can’t remember who now).  And I get it more now.  She’s a very believable teen, with more ambivalence and less purity, though no less innocence.  She’s certainly a creature of her time in contrast with the daughter of the 1962 film.  She’s the one element of improvement.

Unsurprisingly (especially since I sort of remembered it correctly – but anyways), the film ends with the more jaded pessimism where the villainous De Niro has to perish for his crimes.  He’s not killed outright by Nolte, but it’s more violent, packed with more action (it’s storming on Cape Fear in this version), and grittier.

Really, when I thought it through, it’s less the direction and acting (still Nick Nolte? He’s not bad but just seems wrong) but the script that is the problem.  It’s the take on the story and the characterizations.  You can see how they tried to rework the material, not simply to modernize it but to give it unique differences.  It’s just that it’s a flawed effort.  Quite flawed, in my opinion.  Particularly in comparison with such an excellent original.

It’s the damned if you do issue with re-makes: you’re damned if you do it.

But a pretty nice piece of 1990’s style and fashion for those into that sort of schadenfreude.


Hugo (2011) movie poster

(2011) director Martin Scorsese
viewed: 11/26/2011 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

When I first read that Martin Scorsese was due to direct an adaptation of Brian Selznick’s children’s book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, I was intrigued.  I had read Selznick’s book with the kids a couple of years back and its mixture of chapter book narrative mixed with lovely illustrations by the author that draw from history and cinema, breaking at times from the written word to depict the story in images.  The story of the book revolves around a mystery of a wonderful automaton that draws pictures and the re-discovery of the early cinema master Georges Méliès.  The book’s combination of story, re-discovery, and early cinema seemed ripe for a film director who is as much historian as director in many ways.

And that seems to be the way that Scorsese approached the film himself.  Shooting for the first time in 3-D, Scorsese employs one of the most modern of contemporary tools of movie magic, this “depth of field” third dimension, to explore the earliest magician of the cinema, Méliès (with tips of the hat to a number of other early masters).

It’s a beautifully-imagined film, with complex tracking shots through the mechanisms of the clockwork inside a Paris train station, which the orphaned Hugo keeps working, keeping him from being discovered and turned in to an orphanage.  His tutelage from his father and uncle, clock-makers and fixers both, leads him to try to fix the amazing automaton that his father rescued from a museum where it languished in an attic.  Hugo’s father is killed in a fire, leaving him with his besotted uncle (before he disappears), and leaving Hugo with the passion to repair the man-machine to unlock its mystery,

In doing so, he steals for his food, steals for his automaton (spare parts from a toy shop in the station), tracked by the station policeman, played by Sacha Baron Cohen.  He’s caught by the wily old toy shop keeper, (Ben Kingsley) who makes him pay off his thefts by working for him and is befriended by the keeper’s goddaughter, played by Chloë Grace Moretz.

I wouldn’t want to spoil the “mystery” of the story for you, though it may become obvious. The film didn’t hold surprises for us since we’d read the book, though I recall not really knowing where the whole thing was going when we read it initially, so I’ll try to be circumspect.

The film is good, quite lovely, really.  Well-cast, well-acted, well-shot, it still never reached any point of magic or emotion or thrill or anything that one would hope for in the best of children’s movies.  Potentially, it’s over-long at over 2 hours.  Potentially, it’s my own perspective on the content.  I know the story.  I know the images.  I read somewhere that one critic felt that it turned into a bit of a film history lesson.

The thing is is that Georges Méliès, as well as much early cinema, is a secret waiting to be discovered by most people.  Between Méliès and the Lumière brothers, cinema’s soul was invented, the magic and the realism, the fantasy and the verity.  And the Silent era becomes ever further removed in history as time moves forward.  Scorsese delights in illuminating the work of Méliès, pressing his mystical images upon us with the wonder that many of us beheld (behold) when we see them.  And it’s great that between Selznick’s book and Scorsese’s film that the story of this lost art is brought forward to so many more.

Scorsese’s film doesn’t have the immediacy or energy of his most successful works.  In many ways, his more recent films (that I’ve seen), are very self-conscious affairs, each one with a level of self-importance, an attempt at a “major” film, a major commentary on genre or history by a super-intelligent, very accomplished director.  But this level of depth of perception (perhaps metaphorically similar to the extraneous third dimensional depth of field) loses the vigor and energy that sparks the truest magic in cinema, in his own or in the films that he cites and admires.

This is only to say that Hugo is a very good film, not a great one.  A film with a good story that opens up to a history of cinema, made with great love and admiration.  Just not cinema magic in and of itself.  And the kids felt somewhat similarly.  They liked it.  Clara didn’t remember the story from reading it.  She may have reason to re-visit the book.  And we will have reason to revisit Méliès as well.

It struck me funny that this was their first Scorsese film.  It’s certainly the only children’s film that he’s ever made.

Raging Bull

Raging Bull (1980) movie poster

(1980) director Martin Scorsese
viewed: 11/24/10 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

It had been decades since I last saw Martin Scorsese’s hands-down masterpiece, Raging Bull.  And then, at the time, that was probably on VHS.  So, the opportunity to see it on the big screen and an early pre-holiday release from work had me down at the Castro Theatre to witness the great boxing bio-pic that earned Robert De Niro as Oscar and should have earned Scorsese one as well.

Shot in black-and-white, with an aesthetic nod to crime scene photographer Weegee, the film depicts a great deal of brutality and violence, not all of it simply in the boxing ring, not all of it merely physical.  This is the story of boxer Jake LaMotta, who won the middleweight world championship in 1949 and was known for his bullying style of fighting, known as “the Bronx Bull”.

The film starts out with LaMotta in middle age, overweight, divorced, and making a living as an entertainer in clubs and bars, doing recitations and telling jokes.  But the bulk of the film goes back to his early years in professional boxing, recounting four of LaMotta’s six bouts with Sugar Ray Robinson, who hadn’t lost a match until he fought LaMotta, but who also beat LaMotta in the most brutal match of his career.

LaMotta’s home life is more of the story.  Much like the fighter in the ring, he runs his life with his brother Joey, played by Joe Pesci, and his young second wife Vicky, played by Cathy Moriarty.  It’s funny because he only slaps her around a couple of times and knocks her out once, but the feeling of the menace and violence is much more, with his brooding, jealous rages and non-stop suspicion and insecurity. 

Like many of Scorsese’s early films, Raging Bull is about working class New York, hardscrabble kids honed by their world, with the mafia an ever-present, looming figure in the world.  And the De Niro and Pesci almost define the dialogue and delivery with their tough wiseguy repartee whose stilted ineloquence doesn’t all hamper their communication.

The film is energetic and exciting, Scorsese’s best work as a director.  The fight sequences, which aren’t over-long, nor the bulk of the narrative, have brutal impact, even in black-and-white, highlighting the hardest hits, the slow-motion breaking of a nose, the spurting of blood.  Shot for shot, there are much more gruesome films, but Raging Bull gives such weight and impact to the violence, it hits the audience a lot harder, right in the gut.

Scorsese uses sound, the lack of sound, camera movement, slow-motion, quick cuts, a smorgasbord of techniques in great virtuosity.  For as stylish and artistic as the film-making gets, the every bit drives the narrative, each sequnce works for impact, and the film, while not the most enjoyable of subjects, is a riveting and masterly experience.

It’s long held as Scorsese’s best film, though he certainly has others that have qualified as masterpieces as well.  It stands out, however, and is often cited as one of the greatest films of the 1980’s.  And I have to say that I concur.  It’s a hell of a film.

Shutter Island

(2010) director Martin Scorsese
viewed: 07/07/10

Martin Scorsese is a film scholar of the first kind.  That is, a film scholar before film scholarship became an actual study in universities.  Film scholars of his generation had no DVD’s, limited television re-showings, and only the primary experience of seeing films on their initial release in the cinema.  And it’s that formative experience and how he developed his passion for cinema and his aesthetics and ideas that really defined him.  Of course, he would go on to teach film, but as well, he would go on to make films, films that are worthy of scholarship on their own.  I don’t think it’s radical to suggest that Scorsese is among the important American directors of his generation and that he has made some excellent films.

Nowadays, film is more readily available, watchable on demand, able to be studied virtually frame by frame if one is wont to, and not only are film studies programs available all over the world, but there are now perhaps armies of armchair cinephiles clocking hours of film-watching but via internet and blogs, everyone is (potentially) a critic, though how scholarly they are, I don’t know.

Scorsese, between his own films, new films that he helps to produce by other filmmakers or even revivals of classics and favorites, his influence is pretty pervasive.  And he knows good stuff.  His A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995), made for British television during cinema’s centennial is something I’ve been meaning to go back and watch again for a long time.  It’s a great primer and it’s very informative about what draws Scorsese to certain directors, films, and aesthetic focal points.  He, as I’ve said, is a scholar and a professor, and the man simply knows his stuff. He’s great to listen to.

Scorsese’s best work, arguably, was in the earlier part of his career: Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), with his last “great” film being Goodfellas (1990).  With both Raging Bull and Goodfellas getting ruefully overlooked at the Academy Awards, he finally got some long-deserved recognition in finally being awarded Best Picture and Best Director for The Departed (2006) after swinging for the fences with Gangs of New York (2002) and The Aviator (2004).  But what earmarks much of Scorsese’s last two decades of films is that they are big films with big ideas, epic scopes, and strive mightily to tell big stories.  And as with some of the material, the epic is clear, but what’s funky about The Departed and now Shutter Island is that these stories are perhaps a bit more of genre films, less epic in nature, more cut out to be leaner, meaner films.

Now, one could argue that Scorsese took The Departed to that more epic place, but Shutter Island is much more pulpy material, and it’s funny having watched some of the Val Lewton movies that I’ve tracked lately, films all clocking in at much less than 90 minutes, low-budget affairs which Scorsese has a fervent appreciation for, you can see sort of the other side of the coin, the lean, effective thriller, without all the fancy effects or the more grandiose narrative devices.  And I think that a lot of critics felt that Scorsese tried to take the “pulp” and make it operatic.

Shutter Island, adapted from the novel by Dennis Lehane (Gone Baby Gone (2007), Mystic River (2003)), is a psychological thriller set in a mental institution on an Alcatraz-like island off the coast of Boston.  It stars Scorsese’s favorite actor Leonardo DiCaprio (in his 4th starring role for Scorsese) as a law enforcement officer seeking an escaped inmate.  DiCaprio’s character is coming off a trauma of his own, having tragically lost his wife (the beautiful Michelle Williams), and he’s got some issues of his own.  And ultimately as this mystery/horror film unfolds, DiCaprio’s character’s own sanity becomes more and more suspect and the reality of the surroundings become more and more dubious in their reality.

Oddly enough, I’d read the book, the only of Lehane’s works that I’ve read, so I knew where everything was going, which sort of drew some of the joy and suspense (if not most of it) out of the film.  And the film is over-long at over 2 hours.  Is it sort of a time threshold at which “serious” feature films have to cross to be deemed “serious”?  But I didn’t find the film to be as ponderous or weighted down as a lot of reviews that I’d read had made it out to be.  I’m not really a DiCaprio fan, he doesn’t do a lot for me, though he’s not repellent (like Tom Cruise for instance), and here in this film, I found him quite good (no matter how good or bad you think his Boston accent is).  The film spends a little too long unwinding in the finale in particular, which does support the notion that Scorsese would have done well to tighten his film and align it perhaps more with a Lewton-esque concision.

But who knows?  Scorsese scholarship, assuredly studied in some universities already, will come to find Shutter Island somewhere among the spectrum of his oeuvre, doubtlessly not at the top and doubtfully not at the bottom.

Boxcar Bertha

Boxcar Bertha (1972) movie poster

(1972) dir. Martin Scorsese
viewed: 09/15/09

I think I’d had this in my queue for some time, Martin Scorsese’s first feature film, Boxcar Bertha, produced by the legendary Roger Corman who gave many a young filmmaker their first shot at filmmaking, though typically in the form of some form of exploitation or horror film.  And it’s this trope that suddenly interested me.

In some cases, Roger Corman’s “film school” as it is sometimes referred to includes not just Scorsese, but Francis Ford Coppola ‘s Dementia 13 (1963), James Cameron’s  Piranha II: The Spawning (1981), Ron Howard’s Grand Theft Auto (1972), and Jonathan Demme’s Caged Heat (1974), not to mention Peter Bogdonavich and Targets (1968) and Joe Dante’s “original” Piranha (1978).  There are probably loads more, not to mention actors and other film dudes.

Anyways, Boxcar Bertha is the first of this latest trope of movies that I’m planning to watch.  There will be more, in fact, many of the movies listed above will soon be watched and written about right here.

Boxcar Bertha falls within another category of films that I’ve been interested in.   These are films about “real-life” outlaws from the era of the Great Depression, ones who came to represent an anti-hero, anti-establishment popular figure in their own time, but rediscovered in the late 1960’s – 1970’s as representative of the anti-establishment mentality of the time.  Boxcar Bertha herself, though, from what I can tell, wasn’t so much a real person, but the film was adapted from an “autobiography” that was co-written supposedly by her, Sister of The Road: The Autobiography of Boxcar Bertha – as told to Dr. Ben Reitman.  From what I can tell, this is something of a fiction.

The film doesn’t care.  It claims to be based on a true story.  And who knows anyways.  It fits within that brief grouping of films like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Dillinger (1973).  Am I projecting or are there more of these?

Anyways, Scorsese worked with a tight budget and a tight timeline.  The film stars the young and beautiful Barbara Hershey (who knew how pretty she was when she was young?) and the late David Carradine.  The interesting thing in this film is that the outlaws come to robbery as a means to an end, largely inspired by Socialism and Worker’s Rights, though their crimes come to outweigh their qualities.

Not a rip-roaring fim nor a dud.  It could be interesting for a Scorsese scholar.  He shows the most flair in his final shoot-out scene in which Carradine is crucified to the side of a train.  The action is shot with some slick camera movement that is perhaps comes to greater fruition in movies like Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980).

Bertha, as played by Hershey, is a sprite of sorts, a free-lovin’ gal, who is still true to her man.  She’s an outlaw and a rebel but maybe not all that intelligent.  Who knows?

The music is nice, with lots of blues and harmonica music.  The railroad of the period is well-evoked.

I have to say, the name of the film doesn’t really capture one’s imagination reflectively of what the film turns out to be.  I don’t know what you think when you hear the term “Boxcar Bertha” but the lithe and pretty Hershey is probably not the image.  It’s an interesting thing though, the original text.  The guy who wrote it was quite a character himself.  More research is due.

The Color of Money

The Color of Money (1986) movie poster

(1986) dir. Martin Scorsese
viewed: 01/07/08

After having watched Robert Rossen’s classic pool movie The Hustler (1961), it was hard not to want to watch the semi-sequel that Martin Scorsese shot in 1986, reviving “Fast Eddie” Felson and pairing him with hotshot Tom Cruise.  The main qualms I had was that I didn’t really enjoy the movie back in the day when I’d seen it last.  That and I hate Tom Cruise.  But still, circles must be completed.

Whereas The Hustler is a slick, somewhat timeless-feeling film, with its beautiful black-and-white cinematography, jazz soundtrack, and excellent stars Paul Newman, George C. Scott, and Jackie Gleason, Scorsese is stuck in a time, the 1980’s.  Almost dead center.  And part of the whole point of the story is that it is 25 years later, the world has changed, “Fast Eddie” has changed, but going from a timelessness to a timeliness works mostly against the film.  The 1980’s here are some of the worst hairdo’s, clothing, and music.  It’s a little painful at times.  Tom’s coiffure would give Vanilla Ice a run for his money.

That said, the film does have stretches, around the pool tables, and in others, where the story and the cinematography are more energetic and stylish.  Scorsese is no hack.  In fact, he’s one of the better filmmakers of his day and he pumps some slick and interesting sequences and gets some decent performances from his cast.  Tom Cruise is a total asshole in the movie, cocky, egotistical, and shallow.  The thing that always annoyed me about Cruise was that he always played a hotshot, no matter what job it was, he was the hotshot.  In The Color of Money, it’s pool.  In Top Gun (1986), he’s a hotshot pilot.  In Cocktail (1988), he’s a hotshot bartender.  In Days of Thunder (1990), he’s a hotshot racecar driver.  In The Firm (1993), it’s an attorney hotshot.  At least here, being a hotshot doesn’t make you the hero.

The film is really pretty decent, to be honest.  It’s not the classic by a long shot that The Hustler turned out to be, but it’s nothing to be ashamed of.  I think I actually enjoyed it a bit more than I was expecting, having not remembered it particularly fondly.  It was kind of interesting to revisit it.  When I first became interested in “film”, Scorsese was one of the first directors that I got into.  And I think that this was the first of his new films that I saw once I was “interested” in film.  I think I got interested in part after liking After Hours (1985).  Anyways, I did see this on its initial release, and so returning to it now, 23 years later…jeez.  Maybe someone could make a film about Tom Cruise’s character 25 years later, after this one.  Maybe that would be interesting.

Also interesting, and I throw this out there purely for trivia purposes, is that the author from whose books both The Hustler and The Color of Money were adapted, Walter Tevis, is also the author of The Man Who Fell to Earth which Nicolas Roeg adapted with David Bowie into a cult film in 1976.  Really, not two things that one would think might go together or to have come from a single source.  Just an FYI for those who like to be in the know.  For what it’s worth.

The Departed

The Departed (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Martin Scorsese
viewed: 10/13/06 at Century San Francisco Center

After a long week, I decided to try and leave work early and catch a movie.  It had been a long time since I’d made it to the cinema and I was just looking forward to seeing anything, and The Departed was one of the more appealing options.  I’ve always had an appreciation for Scorsese.  In fact, he was one of the first directors that I recognized as I got into film in my teens.  His recent work has seemed as though he’s been shooting for his true epic and I hadn’t seen any since Gangs of New York (2002), which I liked okay, though it was somewhat bloated.

The interesting perk was the only showing that was truly convenient from work was the brand-spanking-new Century San Francisco Center, the upgraded mall that just opened a week prior in downtown San Francisco in the location of the old downtown Emporium.  While racing over to the theater, I escalated up floor after floor of slick new mall-land.  It’s really kind of impressive.  But especially so at the top where the old Emporium dome (still intact — the only thing left from the old store) looms high above an open area quite spectacularly.  Just up one more set of escalators is the 9 screen cinema.

I won’t get into the whole tragedy of San Francisco’s progressive loss of small neighborhood cinemas since I have lived here.  And I am sure that this new one will be an added nail in the coffins of at least a couple.  It’s interestingly close to the Metreon, which is now an AMC theater, I think.  But the whole group of malls are all owned by Westfield.  Whatever.

Ah, the movie.  It’s pretty good, to be honest.  Certainly not in Scorsese’s top tier of work.  It’s pretty doubtful he’ll hit that level again.  But here, he’s made is best film in years, perhaps his best film since Goodfellas (1990) — I give that caveat since I haven’t seen them all.

Jack Nicholson is pretty amazing.  He’s mostly Jack, but he has a few scenes that he really delivers on.  The acting as a whole is pretty good and features lots of notable people.  I’d even say that Leonardo DiCaprio even does a pretty respectable job.  I’ll throw in kudos to both Mark Wahlberg (surprisingly good at times) and Ray Winstone, unsurprisingly and typically amazing.

Acting isn’t totally a compelling reason to draw me to a movie.  This film is an adaptation or re-make of Infernal Affairs (2002), a pretty good Hong Kong cop thriller that I caught on DVD in the time that I wasn’t updating this diary.  The re-make works, re-setting the location to Boston.  Boston is a real essential part of the film as all the characters are as much a part of the city as anything, all products of their world.  I don’t know Boston, and I understand a fair amount of the film was actually shot in New York.  It could be interesting from that perspective, I don’t know.

It’s a genre film with a good scenario, the story of two moles, one from the Boston crime world who is embedded in the Police Force to keep tabs on the cops and their movements and a cop who is enlisted to become a secretive spy in Nicholson’s house of crime, unknown to any but two police officers…in deep, deep cover.  It’s a compelling story and a telling contrast of morals of the criminal who becomes more and more influenced by the decency of the world of the police and the undercover cop who is forced to enact great brutality in the name of the greater good.  This ain’t an analysis.  It’s just an interesting tale.

It’s a genre film, a pretty big one, but a solid one.  It’s very good, but doesn’t necessarily achieve greatness.  It sometimes flirts with it.  Actually, the soundtrack kind of annoyed me.  I know that Scorsese’s use of music is considered to be one of his trademarks and it also has its moments, but here it feels kind of forced and overt.  It’s too much.  But overall, I’d recommend this as a pretty solid film outing.

Gangs of New York

Gangs of New York (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Martin Scorsese
viewed: 12/28/02 at AMC 1000 Van Ness, SF, CA

Scorsese’s overblown, lugubrious epic was pretty disappointing for me> Not that it was an abysmal film or anything, just not nearly as strong a film as I would have hoped. I am having a hard time articulating exactly what the biggest problems I had with the film were.

I don’t know if it’s just me (it probably is), but I am finding myself reading great political discourses into a lot of films lately. Gangs of New York clearly addresses itself to issues of what America is and how it evolved into such a thing, all focussed very specifically on the rough world of the city during the middle of the nineteenth century. New York City, the largest, most significant city in the United States is quite often used as an exemplar of American culture, an extreme example, but highly representative. It’s an epic tale that Scorsese has woven from an eponymous 1928 non-fiction account of the period by Herbert Asbury. It’s a strikingly barbarous period, surprising, really, in that it’s only a few generations removed from the present.

Scorsese had supposedly had this project in mind since the late 1970’s, though it was only finally greenlighted for production by Miramax in the late 1990’s and mostly shot during 2000, I believe. So how much of the film directly addresses the current political world into which it was released in 2002 is highly speculative. The issues that Scorsese focuses on, the clash of immigrant cultures with the “Natives” (who are defined as at times only third generation immigrants themselves), the physicality of the New York setting, and the historical situation of the period may reflect on the present and may have some inflection from it. However, I am sure that my “reading” of the film is influenced by my constant awareness of the current “American” situation.

This idea is crystalized in the closing shot, a view from the graveyard across the river back at the city as it changes through time upwards towards the present. The shot simply states that the world depicted in the film is the same world of current times, that these events occurred on the same turf. Inevitably, the shot morphs from the digitally painted 1860’s New York skyline into a skyline that includes the World Trade Center buildings and other skyscrapers as the screen fades to black. The shot does not evolve beyond that to a truly current image, one in which those buildings no longer exist. Is it perhaps that Scorsese is saying that this was an idea that he had that really addressed the very recent past and no longer resonates in the true present?

The xenophobia and “Know Nothing”-ness of the character of William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting (played so brilliantly by Daniel Day-Lewis) represents a still strong element in American politics. The character is the highlight of the film, complex and sympathetic, perhaps even noble despite his outright brutality and racism.

I can’t get my head around this film the way I would like to. I wish that I had been able to like it better though.