Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Big Pretentious Movie Summer (6-10)

Mean Streets dir. Martin Scorsese (1973)
Interesting to watch, in terms of how it serves as a bench mark for the rest of Scorsese's career. I found it very well-acted (Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel both give characteristically searing, intense performances) and compelling. It is also wildly unfocused and I can't for the life of me figure out if that's a bad thing or not. The film seems to race along from plot point to plot point at a break-neck pace, leaving little time for cohesion and semblance of structure. Ultimately, what it lacks in real plot, it makes up for in very studied, meticulous characterization, which helps to make the ending all the more shocking and emotionally resonant. A fine film and it's easy to see why it has such a following even if I tread hesitantly a few steps behind.
Grade: B

Taxi Driver dir. Martin Scorsese (1976)
It's strange how this film has a reputation for being so gruff, male and violent. I suppose it is all of these things, but it's also incredibly and surprisingly heartfelt, touching and poignant. Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle is one of the most specific, layered and fascinating cinematic antiheroes. Those that are most interesting to watch are the ones who try and often fail to do the right thing, despite their surroundings and all of their worst, basest impulses. Consider, for just a moment, the scene where Travis walks into the offices where political campaign employee Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) works. He is out of place and he knows it. Betsy knows it too. But everything about his approach--the eyes, so expressive, his sheepish, but knowing grin, not only the words he says, but the way he says them with a low, quiet, unpretentious smolder--is just right. I'm sure most of us know what happens next, but ignoring said knowledge, THAT is how you approach someone. Jodie Foster is impressive in her limited role, as is Harvey Keitel whose getup and swagger are pitch-perfect. A great film, one of the best of the 1970s, certainly and an amazing leap forward in Scorsese's maturation as a filmmaker.
Grade: A-

Gone with the Wind dir. Victor Fleming (1939)
For the longest time, I had to tell people that I had seen neither Gone with the Wind nor Casablanca, which are arguably considered the two most quintessentially classic and canonized films (give or take The Godfather). Now I can no longer say that. I've seen both films and I'm glad I did, if only to learn how the former was completely sweeping, immersive and epic, whereas the latter is (at least from where I'm standing) well-made, if hollow and dated (we'll get to Casablanca in a minute). I was enthralled with Gone with the Wind from the first frame to last, which is saying a lot considering how frigid my expectations of the film were. I went into it, defenses up, completely ready to hate it. First of all, a Civil War epic from the 1930s? Yes, racism abounds in this film, but not in any way that precludes one from appreciating it (as horrible as that sounds) for what it is. Nearly four hours? Yes, Gone with the Wind is very long. Very, very, very, very long. But, while I don't think I ever need to watch it again any time soon, I think it actually sustains its seemingly cumbersome length. Vivien Leigh is amazing as Scarlett O'Hara, perfectly tracking her transition from winsome lamb to gruff, hardened survivor and finally to jaded opportunist. However, me extolling her praises, now having finally deigned to watch the film for the first time seems equal parts myopic and self-absorbed.
Grade: A-

Raging Bull
dir. Martin Scorsese (1980)
One of the most engaging, visceral movie-watching experiences in recent memory and the first "A+" that I've EVER awarded to a film on this blog. It truly employs all the senses. Robert De Niro plays Jake LaMotta so intelligently, every aspect thought out so specifically. He's raw and physical, but he knows that the external is only half of the performance. Every aspect of De Niro here, the voice, the mannerisms, even the way he lovingly touches his wife Vickie (played wonderfully by Cathy Moriarty) is twinged with certain aggression and verve. Even Joe Pesci, an actor who I have so say, with mild resignation that I just don't "get," doesn't serve to spoil this film in any way for me. Extrinsic to Raging Bull itself, I love how Paul Thomas Anderson appropriated so many parts of Scorsese's filmography (Raging Bull and then Goodfellas) when making Boogie Nights. Good appropriation is the hallmark of a good filmmaker (but that's another story, entirely). The fight scenes are unrelentingly violent and gruesome, but never in excess and never are they more horrifying than the scene where Jake watches Vickie say hello to some male friends at a club, in plain sight. You feel his rage, his jealousy and the bile building. Is any of it founded? Perhaps. So perfectly and consistently (with a few exceptions) is our gaze fixed Jake's point of view that we're right there with him. This film's treatment of women (particularly LaMotta's two wives) had me pondering about Scorsese's treatment of women in general. Cathy Moriarty (in a debut performance) plays Vickie with a sly, lithe quietness, never really revealing her hand, even in the end. She's Madonna-fied by Jake (to the ultimate detriment of their relationship), but how much of it is projected on her and how much of it is she projecting? I leaned forward, I rewatched several of her scenes and I'm still bewitched, possibly in the same way that Jake was. She's so communicative and expressive. Take, for instance, the scenes of Jake and Vickie's courtship. She does nearly EVERYTHING he tells her. "Move over." "Sit closer." "Sit on my lap." She does it all and with little or no protest. But she's not compliant, at least not in the way Jake wants. Vickie doesn't do anything she doesn't want to do. This is one of the best films I've ever seen and I couldn't even pick just one image to go along with this write-up, so I chose three.
Grade: A+

dir. Michael Curtiz (1942)
I appreciated several aspects of this film, and find it to be solid and serviceable. It's screenplay? Perfect, in terms of hitting the right story beats at the right times. I can even understand, on the most basic level why people love this film and why it's a classic. But there's a real disconnect between myself and the laudatory praise this movie has gotten since its release some 68 years ago. The love story, which is really meant to be the emotional core of the film, left me cold and unfeeling. Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart are uncharacteristically stiff and stilted, beyond what the film is asking of them. Not that I needed it to be white hot passionate. I understand that an understated, seemingly impersonal love affair acts in service of a story like this. In The English Patient, for instance. However, I found it very difficult getting invested in this story and I actually found it to be quite average.
Grade: B-

10 films down, 145 to go.

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