MoMA Mia: Scorsese Selects (Some Pretty Great Movies)

So far this summer I’ve waded through the ups and downs of Kodak’s game-changing Technicolor technology, and briefly dived into the melodramatic depths of Mexican noir. Closing out MoMA’s sterling summer lineup is a series (supposedly) curated personally by Martin Scorsese, to show off many of the films that have had an influence on his own remarkable career. Whether Scorsese really hand-picked every film in this series, or the MoMA staff simply sifted through the numerous interviews where Scorsese has talked about his cinephilic upbringing (has any other filmmaker been more openly obsessed with discussing and preserving his personal favorites?), we may never know. Regardless, it’s been a great chance to catch some cult classics and revisit other gems for the first time on the big screen. As it turns out, whatever you think of his own films, Martin Scorsese has some pretty good taste. Who knew?



Sunday, August 16, 2:30pm: “A Matter of Life and Death (Stairway to Heaven)” (1946), Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Compared to some of Powell and Pressburger’s epic collaborations (“The Red Shoes,” “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp,” “The Tales of Hoffmann”), “A Matter of Life and Death” (originally billed in the United States as “Stairway to Heaven,” after the film’s signature set-piece) is outwardly a downright modest affair: it clocks in at a perfectly average hour and forty five minutes, and for the majority of that running time centers around three or four characters. But really it’s one of the grandest works of original cinematic fantasy ever put on screen. The seamless integration of spectacular special effects and pseudo-scientific allegory into, at heart, an endearing romantic drama, must make Christopher Nolan sick with envy. I can hardly imagine, in 1946, convincing a producer to put so much cash and craft wizardry into a film without any established property or story as a foundation – but Powell and Pressburger did it, and all the better for us.

The setup is one that would’ve still been a raw subject for Britain in the days immediately following the war – David Niven plays a squadron leader who bails out of his burning bomber while returning from a bombing raid in early May of 1945 (mere days before victory in Europe). He has no parachute, and fully expects to die – but somehow, miraculously, he doesn’t, and washes up on English soil in a gorgeous sequence where Niven nails the quiet surrealism in a scene that otherwise shows a perfectly normal day at the beach. As it turns out, Niven was fated to die over the Channel, but the powers-that-be in “the Other World” (Powell and Pressburger leave their afterlife ambiguous regarding any division of heaven or hell) simply missed him in a batch of thick fog.

The depiction of the afterlife as just as stuffy and bureaucratic as our own is ingenious, and allows for delightful debates of the merits of human life and romance as Niven files a legal appeal to the higher authorities to be granted a reprieve from death (having, in his “borrowed” time, fallen in love with an American nurse). The visual and thematic contrasts (the “Other World” is filmed, counter-intuitively, in washed-out monochrome, while Earth gets the vibrant Technicolor treatment) are so simple, and yet you know no copycat could capture the same magic again; few filmmakers other than Powell and Pressburger could handle such grand material with such a light touch. A must-see and perfect entry into the Archers canon if the lengthy running time of “The Red Shoes” is (mistakenly) holding you back.

Saturday, August 22, 2:30pm: “Cat People” (1942), Jacques Tournear/ 5pm: “I Walked with a Zombie” (1943), Jacques Tournear

Val Lewton, RKO’s B-movie horror wunderkind, has pretty much completed the swing from forgotten studio stooge to cult-worshipped producer-auteur; thanks, in part, to the efforts of filmmakers like Scorsese and Tarantino who re-discovered and pushed Lewton’s films back into the cultural consciousness. It seemed only appropriate to finally catch up with Lewton’s two most famous works (both collaborations with the exceptional noir director Tournear) as a sort of double feature – spending the whole afternoon enveloped, as one might’ve at a summer matinee back in the 1940s, in Lewton’s shadows.

First, “Cat People.” You guys. Even several days later, I’m not sure I’m ready to properly describe how good this movie is. Working off his own 1930 short story (published with the less-ridiculous but also less-endearing title “The Bagheeta”), Lewton, along with Tournear and screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen, takes an absurd little premise – Irena, a young Serbian woman living in America, fears she is descended from a race of witches who turned into panthers when aroused – and manufacture more tension and fear than a hundred jump-scares put together.

Part of it is the lighting, which deserves to be listed up there with the best of American noir. The film’s look probably emerged partly from simple business concerns – RKO was still reeling from the financial hits of Welles’ “Citizen Kane” and “The Magnificent Ambersons,” and could only afford a handful of sets – but the shadows don’t just hide the low budget. They are perfect for this insidious tale of a lurking, engrained evil; Lewton and Tournear were savvy enough to know that the monster we can’t see is far more frightening than the one we can. There are two nightmarish sequences in particular – one in a swimming pool, one on an empty city street, both involving Alice, Irena’s romantic competition, being threatened by Irena’s “cat form” – that are master classes in suggested suspense. The film is made all the more discomforting by the lack of a clear-cut protagonist: Irena is both the film’s primary threat and its only sympathetic character, surrounded by a blandly naive husband and a predatory psychiatrist. French actress Simone Simon was probably cast for her unmistakably kitten-like presence, but she’s also very believable as a woman conflicted about her own desires and capabilities.

“I Walked with a Zombie” can’t live up to the same schlocky-title/genius-film ratio as “Cat People,” but really that says more about the latter. As B-movie horror ideas go, a voodoo take on Jane Eyre is also pretty fantastic. Lewton was clearly obsessed with the idea of inherited evil (the episode of Karina Longworth’s podcast You Must Remember This about Lewton is all-around fascinating, but particularly revealing in discussing Lewton’s lifelong interest in atavism), and the ancestral burden of slavery in the Caribbean is certainly a doozy – made all the more powerful here because Tournear, Lewton and writers Curt Siodmak (noir director Robert’s brother) and Ardel Wray keep that aspect of the white Holland family’s interaction with the black inhabitants of their island largely relegated to subtext (and one super-eerie figurehead of Saint Sebastian). “I Walked with a Zombie” is a very Victorian tale of passion-as-possession, and the supernatural, voodoo elements of the story reinforce that sense of human behavior controlled by seething, swirling forces beyond our control. There are fewer standout sequences than in “Cat People,” but a visit by the in-over-her-head Canadian nurse Betsy to a voodoo gathering is just as moody and uneasy as anything in the earlier film.

Did I mention both these films are barely more than an hour long? What else do you need to hear?

Tuesday, August 25, 7:30pm: “Gun Crazy” (1950), Joseph H. Lewis

Before there was Bonnie and Clyde, there was Bart and Laurie (on the silver screen, anyway). Arthur Penn’s classic 1967 film is generally credited for busting down Hollywood’s self-imposed barrier against explicit sex and violence, but after finally watching Joseph H. Lewis’ cult noir hit, it’s clear that “Bonnie and Clyde” owes “Gun Crazy” a major debt for unscrewing some of the hinges.

A pair of sideshow sharpshooters with no discernible skills or interests besides guns, Bart and Laurie are clearly destined for a life of crime, especially after Laurie makes her appetite for, um, luxury, known. “I want a lot of things – big things,” Laurie declares, in what will certainly not be the last of the film’s censor-dodging innuendo. Poor Bart, completely smitten (and with no other option besides the institutional repression of the army), will get her those big things, though his love of shooting comes with a crippling fear of actual killing – something that increasingly becomes a problem as their jobs get bigger and more dangerous. Everything that “Bonnie and Clyde” made explicit, “Gun Crazy” teases: the sexual, fetishistic link between the two lovers and violence, male shooting prowess as compensation for impotency, the inevitable and necessary doom of social misfits and deviants.

And, also like its sister film, “Gun Crazy” is a technical marvel: instead of Penn’s famed “dance of death,” there’s the extended one-take bank heist sequence, in which the camera never leaves the back of Bart and Laurie’s car as they drive through town, distract and knock out a security guard, and make their get-away. It’s riveting and immediate stuff, especially since we’re so used to car scenes from that period of filmmaking (including other shots in this same movie) being rear-projected. The claustrophobic, contained effect is consistent throughout the whole film: Lewis and cinematographer Russell Harlan often film the two leads in stark close-up, sweating and twitching as the authorities slowly gain on them.

If there’s a relative knock against “Gun Crazy,” it’s that its two leads are nowhere near the performers that Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway are. John Dall and Peggy Cummins are serviceable no-names, but clearly never reached the A-list for a reason (Dall was much more engaging two years earlier as one of the prep-school murderers of Hitchcock’s “Rope”). But the script – co-written by a blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, working under the assumed name of Millard Kaufman – works with that, giving Bart and Laurie a broader appeal as symbols of social disturbance, rather than uniquely motivated individuals. It’s a fascinating hint of the transition from the post-war trauma of film noir to the discontent of the New Wave.

For Your Consideration: Sep. 12, 2014

This weekend marks something of a sad landmark: with the release of Michael Roskam’s “The Drop,” we’ve hit the last opportunity to see the late, great James Gandolfini on the big screen. It’s perhaps fitting that the man made immortal by playing Tony Soprano will go out with another mob drama; with Scorsese moving on to white-collar crime and De Niro reduced to this, Gandolfini might be the last great gangster (if you’re listening to A.O. Scott, he was certainly one of the last patriarchs). So in honor of Gandolfini and “The Drop,” a selection of classic gangster films, for your consideration.

Ethan

Tokyo Drifter” (1966)

Cast: Tetsuya Watari, Chieko Matsubara, Tamio Kawaji, Hideaki Nitani, Eiji Gô

Available streaming on Hulu Plus, for rent or purchase on Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix

Time Out famously referred to Seijun Suzuki’s fantasia of crime and color as “inspired lunacy,” and I’m hard-pressed to find a more fitting description. After cranking out yakuza films for about a decade, Suzuki grew tired of the B-movie fare continually handed to him by his studio, and it started to show. The director could not be less interested in the genre conventions of “Tokyo Drifter:” action sequences cut off halfway through, the villain’s scheme is barely comprehensible, and our hero seems more concerned with matching his outfit to the wallpaper than with gunplay. It’s a phenomenally bonkers, gorgeously shot art-pop deconstruction of gangster flicks, just as likely to end with a musical number as with a murder.

Ethan

The Friends of Eddie Coyle” (1973)

Cast: Robert Mitchum, Peter Boyle, Richard Jordan, Steven Keats, Alex Rocco, Joe Santos, Mitchell Ryan

Available streaming on Hulu Plus, for rent or purchase on Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix

A gritty, grimy antidote to the glamorized crime films of Hollywood’s Golden Age, “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” is a clear forerunner (along with its contemporary “The Godfather,” of course) to the fatalism of Scorsese and “The Sopranos.” Lead Robert Mitchum serves as a link to the genre’s noir history, playing schlubby, overmatched Eddie Coyle, a small-time gun runner trying to avoid jail time and get on the straight and narrow. As you might imagine, the title is something of a red herring: Coyle has no real friends, and Peter Yates’ film (adapted from a George V. Higgins novel) holds no illusions of redemption or even dignity where crime is concerned.

Ethan

Gomorrah” (2008)

Cast: Salvatore Abruzzese, Simone Sacchetino, Salvatore Ruocco, Vincenzo Fabricino, Vincenzo Altamura, Italo Renda, Francesco Pirozzi, Antonio Aiello, Vincenzo Caso

Available streaming on Hulu Plus, for rent or purchase on Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix

A broad, tangled portrait of corruption and violence in modern Naples, so on-the-nose that the author of the film’s source novel (Roberto Saviano) was forced into hiding to avoid retribution from the Camorra, the city’s leading crime family. Telling five parallel stories of individuals, each in their own way swallowed by the mob’s financial (and often physical) stranglehold on the populace, Matteo Garrone’s masterwork is both ferocious and despairing. The Camorra is all-encompassing, more an invisible, malevolent force than a tangible group, and no one, from dressmakers to bureaucrats to wayward adolescents, can escape its influence. It’s rare for a film this large in scope to feel so claustrophobic.

Ethan

Reviews: Another Three-Pack

The movies have arrived fast and furious here in the heart of awards season, so we’ve got a lot to catch up on and more yet to come. Time to cross a few off the list with another round of not-quite-full reviews, this go-around generally centered on a trio of terrific actors.

Inside Llewyn Davis

A mish-mash of the Coen brothers’ favorite themes and devices, “Inside Llewyn Davis” doesn’t so much surprise as ingratiate; much like its eponymous protagonist, this is a film that wheedles its way into your heart, inviting you to fall prey to a cycle of failure and absurdity of tragicomic proportions against all better judgment. Borrowing the floundering artist of “Barton Fink,” the Job-esque confluence of fate of “A Serious Man,” and the musical Odyssey structure of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” the Coens have arranged and rearranged and arrived with yet another gem. Superbly crafted, as one would expect, “Inside Llewyn Davis” really sets itself part in the Coens’ body of work thanks to an indelible lead and the exceptional performance behind him.

There have been an awful lot of films (of supremely varying quality) on the ineffability of creative genius, but perhaps only a team as perverse as the Coen brothers would be so fascinated by the stagnation of near-genius. Flitting from couch to couch by day and cafe to cafe by night, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is just one of any number of itinerant musicians trying to make his way in the crowded folk music scene of 1960’s New York. Once part of an up-and-coming duo, Davis is struggling as a solo act: his new album has made nary a dent, he may have gotten his best friend’s girlfriend (Carey Mulligan) pregnant, and to top things off he’s been saddled with an orange tabby that, like all cats, seems hell bent on inconveniencing his every move. But where Davis separates himself from previously star-crossed Coen characters like Larry Gopnik or Barton Fink is that Davis may entirely deserve his kharmic gauntlet.

Brutally sarcastic and detached, Davis seems set on setting himself back even in the few moments that divine intervention isn’t doing it for him. It’s thanks to Isaac’s charismatic, finely balanced turn that we can still see the value in, and even root for, such an embittered, misanthropic man. There are points you desperately wish he would act differently, but you can always glean the deep-seeded pain and frustration in Davis’ eyes, or, more importantly, in his music. Davis is not Barton Fink, a blue-collar pretender whose intense writer’s block stemmed at least partly from his feigned worldliness; his art comes from somewhere deeply personal, its expression compulsory. As Isaac himself aptly put it in an interview with NPR, “Life is squeezing [Davis], and these are the sounds he’s making.”

The film wanders with no particular narrative, holding even more loosely to its Homeric framework than the already rather liberated “O Brother” (although one particular, ill-advised joke hammers home the allusion too hard). John Goodman and Garrett Hedlund arrive halfway through the film for an appropriately eerie descent into the underworld, manifested here as a famed nightclub in Chicago. There the “Inside Llewyn Davis” version of Hades, a gruff, on-point F. Murray Abraham, delivers perhaps the most devastating line of dialogue of the year; and so Davis is sentenced to return back to where he started, forced the confront the dingy back-alleys and endless doldrums that are his home.

Verdict: 4 out of 4 stars

Nebraska

If there’s been something missing from Alexander Payne’s road-trip films up to this point (“About Schmidt,” “Sideways”) it’s perhaps an appropriate sense of weariness, of the physical and mental exhaustion that results from crossing mile after mile of black-top highway. The writer-director’s wit and nimble direction always keeps things relatively light, even when addressing the most strained emotions. “Nebraska” is far from glum, but its confluence of casting, setting and style gives its central family a lived-in, worn-out feel that resonates more genuinely than some of Payne’s past characters.

Traversing a stark Midwestern landscape that would probably exist in black-and-white even if Phedon Papamichael hadn’t shot it that way, David Grant (Will Forte) and his father Woody (Bruce Dern) are on a fool’s errand. Woody, a doddering alcoholic two shuffles short of senility, has received one of those “You may have already won $1 million” mail scams I thought had long since gone the way of Nigerian royalty, and is determined to trek from his home in Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect his winnings, even if he has to walk there. As travel plans go, this makes “The Straight Story” look like Expedia, so David resignedly agrees to drive his father the distance. It’s partly an act of kindness towards the confused old man, but David has plenty of his own reasons for making the journey: the opportunity to spend some his time with his long-distant father, perhaps, and if nothing else to get out of town for a weekend and away from his ex-girlfriend who has just moved out of the apartment.

This is prime episodic road-trip fodder, but Lincoln gets sidetracked as David and Woody stop on the way for an impromptu family reunion in Woody’s old hometown of Hawthorne, a tiny Nebraska backwater mostly unchanged since World War II. As David encounters some of Woody’s old family, friends, and, in a particularly poignant scene, lovers, “Nebraska” becomes an expertly crafted study of small-town dynamics. In a place like Hawthorne, everyone knows everything about everyone else, and the gossip that “Woody Grant’s a millionaire” spreads like wildfire, creating unexpected tensions with opportunistic relatives and Woody’s former business partner (a gruff and suitably domineering Stacy Keach).

Placed in this unforgiving setting, the film provides a sharp and melancholic contrast between delusions and dreams on the one hand, and harsher reality on the other. Nostalgia and memory interweave, providing Woody and David with a glimpse of both pain and happiness gone by. David has generally viewed his father’s absenteeism and drinking problem, not unfairly, with disdain; in these reflections of Woody’s past, we are given a more complicated picture, of a fundamentally decent man troubled by regrets he may never be able to articulate.

Woody’s inability to voice his fears and frustrations makes him quite a match for his wife Kate (June Squibb), a no-nonsense live wire that acts as the film’s truth-teller. The scenes between the two of them are a kind of perfection of character you could only get from two performers who have spent their long, long careers away from the top billing: Squibb, matter-of-fact in a manner that conveys resignation rather than petulance, and Dern, slouched and slumped but with infinitely sad, restless eyes, make you believe in every one of the many years that have passed between the two. Forte, along with Bob Odenkirk as David’s brother Ross, fills out the unit in convincing fashion. Suitably enough, it’s this family that, even amongst Payne and screenwriter Bob Nelson’s humorous asides on Midwestern culture, gives “Nebraska” a sense of purpose.

Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars

The Wolf of Wall Street

It’s a mystery to me that, after all these years and acceptance into the cinematic canon, Martin Scorsese apparently still has the ability to brew up so much trouble. All the more power to him – at age 71, he yet has the sharp wit and exuberant style that made his name in the 70s. “The Wolf of Wall Street,” a sort of spiritual successor to “GoodFellas” in the director’s “epic of bad behavior” sub-genre, is Scorsese’s freshest, most wickedly funny film in some time, and with that brash attitude there was bound to be some misguided backlash.

While “GoodFellas” charted the rise and fall of Henry Hill, a working-class mafioso who got his hands extremely dirty scrabbling his way to the high life, “The Wolf of Wall Street” trains Scorsese’s sights on white-collar crime: the Financial District fat cats that find excess and luxury while barely so much as lifting a finger. The film’s real-life anti-hero, Jordan Belfort (played here by an energized Leonardo DiCaprio), was your typical bright-eyed young business major, who quickly descended into a life of hard partying when he discovered just how easy stock swindling could be for a motor-mouthed charmer such as himself. Along with his partner Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) and a cadre of sleazebag salesmen, Belfort took his upstart brokerage firm to heights of decadence heretofore imagined only by the likes of Caligula.

Much of the film’s grand three-hour running time is dedicated to these Wall Street bacchanalias, and one does wonder if this second act couldn’t have been trimmed down a bit for structure’s sake – by the time we reach Jordan’s gradual, inevitable tumble from Olympus, the handcuffs feel long overdue. But then, that is perhaps the point; Scorsese has come under fire for reveling too much in the wacky, drug-infused antics of fundamentally despicable people, as if we, the audience, weren’t laughing along every step of the way. The director is unapologetic in his depiction of Belfort’s selfish, destructive behavior, and why should he be: his firm’s fortune was made, for the most part, on the backs of others who aspired to the same lifestyle. Can we just not handle the idea that we too, should be criticized for helping create the system that produces the Jordan Belforts of the world?

There are elements of “The Wolf of Wall Street” that remain problematic. Depicting misogyny without participating in it has been a stumbling block for even the greatest filmmakers, and Scorsese can not really be excused here. “GoodFellas” nimbly handled the issue by its clever and unexpected hand-off of narration to Hill’s wife, Karen; neither Belfort’s aggrieved first wife Teresa (Cristin Miloti) nor his mistress and trophy Naomi (Margot Robbie) are afforded a similar opportunity. That Scorsese follows a particularly revolting scene of Jordan assaulting Naomi with a more ambiguously sympathetic scene of Belfort trying to protect his best friend, is troublesome.

Still, it has been a while since Scorsese created something that felt so dangerous and debatable, or had such singular stand-out elements. DiCaprio in particular gives one of, if not the best performance of his career, finally worthy of comparison to De Niro’s signature collaborations with the director. His physical dedication to bits both comedic and depraved (or a combination of both) is total. DiCaprio has grown more and more adventurous over the past decade, and it’s paid off in one of his most indelible characters.

Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars