Saturday, December 7, 2013

November 2013

     In 1972, 30-year-old Martin Scorsese had just completed his first mainstream movie, “Boxcar Bertha,” for Roger Corman’s company. Already a part of the New York movie scene, he asked the guru of independent filmmaking, John Cassavetes, what he thought of the film.

     “Marty, you’ve just spent a whole year of your life making a piece of shit. It’s a good picture, but you’re better than the people who make this kind of picture,” Cassavetes told him, according to an interview included in the book “Scorsese on Scorsese.”  Cassavetes told him to follow the filmmaking instincts he showed in his low-budget feature debut “Who’s That Knocking at My Door?”

      So Scorsese passed on “I Escaped from Devil’s Island” and started reworking a script he had written with childhood friend Mardik Martin called “Season of the Witch.” Time magazine critic (and future screenwriter) Jay Cocks suggested naming it after this Raymond Chandler line: “Down these mean streets a man must go.”

     The first time I saw “Mean Streets” was on network television sometime in the mid 1970s. Though obviously cut to shreds by TV censors, the film immediately become one of my favorites—I had never seen any like it, except maybe “Five Easy Pieces,” which I also first watched on network TV in the same period. These characters were nothing like the ones in movies I watched with my parents. They didn’t follow rules, didn’t live in a traditionally accepted manner and they constantly questioned the very meaning of their existence. At that point, I didn’t understand the questions I should be asking, let alone how to get the answers.

     Watching Scorsese’s 40-year-old breakthrough film again last week—I’d probably seen it most recently 10 years ago—I was struck by the episodical nature of the movie. It’d be more accurate to re-title it “Scenes from Mean Streets.” But it’s pulled together by Harvey Keitel’s Charlie, who is always in the middle of everything, as he struggles with family loyalty, ambition, faith, living the “mean streets” life.

      Yet while Charlie’s internal struggles are what the film is all about, the unpredictable, frenetic, out-of-control psychopath Johnny Boy is the character who is burned into the memory of anyone who’s ever seen the movie.

       Robert De Niro, beginning his long association with Scorsese, manages to make this two-bit low-life hustler alluring and hilarious, idiotic and dangerous, hateful and hopeless. There are few sequences in the history of film as intoxicating as Johnny Boy’s entrance into the bar near the start of the film. In slow motion, to the blaring chords of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” with two girls by his side and his fedora balanced on his head, he grooves his way into the joint, down to the end of the bar where Charlie awaits to ask him about missing payments on gambling debt. Scorsese and the actors turn the scene into an Abbott and Costello routine, as they repair to a back room and the hyper Johnny leans forward and answers “Wha?” to every question Charlie asks.      

      Scorsese does things with the camera in “Mean Streets” that are as outrageous and revolutionary as Welles did in “Citizen Kane.” Most interestingly, he throws continuity out the window, creating an almost abstract mood with jump cuts and abrupt scene changes, energizing the film with a kind of hyper-reality that continues to make Scorsese films distinctive today. Using handheld cameras, most notably in the famous “mook” pool hall fight, and, borrowing from the French New Wave, shooting with long lens, documentary style, on the streets of Little Italy, the director establishes himself as a filmmaker who was searching for new ways to tell his stories while still connecting to classics of the studio era.

      Most of the hip, youth-oriented movies of the era were about characters who had been changed by the 1960s—drugs, Vietnam, Woodstock—and were out to make a better world. The guys of “Mean Streets,” even as the soundtrack plays the hits of the ‘60s, were still clinging to the world of the ‘40s and ‘50s, with their ties and hats, whisky sours and mob values. They are the kids of the underbosses from “The Godfather,” still trying to live out a dying lifestyle. These are the people Scorsese grew up around in Little Italy, ruled by the church and the mob, happy to carve out a little piece of the action while keeping their bar tab in check and their friends out of jail.

      In the next few years, Scorsese delivered his masterpieces, “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull,” more rigorous and precisely executed films, yet the freewheeling, pistol-shot-into-the-night experience of “Mean Streets” remains a touchstone of ‘70s cinema; one of those films that, when seen at the right time, makes you feel more alive, energized to rush headfirst into whatever life brings on—damn the consequences.        

12 YEARS A SLAVE  (2013)
    One of the greatest shames in this country's history is the long, horrific institution of slavery, which lasted for nearly 250 years before the Civil War brought it to a bloody end. Yet the number of serious films that have addressed the issue can be counted on one hand—the silent “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (1927), “Amistad” (1997), “Beloved” (1998) and last year’s “Django Unchained.”  Compare that record to the uncountable European movies detailing aspects of the Holocaust, which latest about a decade.

     It’s been on television where such acclaimed works as “Roots,” “North and South” and “A Woman Called Moses” have given voice to those who suffered for the sake of the greedy Southern plantation owners. In fact, a TV version of “12 Years a Slave” was made by legendary photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks in 1984 for “American Playhouse.”

     While one film can hardly rectify this gaping hole, "12 Years a Slave" proves itself a worthy start.  This thoughtful, fearless account of what a free black man had to endure for a dozen years after being sold into slavery might not be the typical story of this inhuman institution, yet it’s more relatable for modern audience because Solomon Northup is an educated, reflective everyman who refuses to accept his fate. That Northup wrote and published his account of his time in slavery makes him an even more impressive figure.

      Steve McQueen, a British independent filmmaker (who bravely kept his rather famous name) with just two other features to his name, doesn’t make any concessions for mainstream audiences, forcing viewers to feel a bit of the pain and humiliation of being considered property. While Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” showed horrendous treatment of African slaves, his main character stood apart, allowing audience to take comfort in the fantasy revenge against slave owners; in “12 Years,” the main character is both suffering the indignities and witnessing those even worse.

       Solomon, rigorously portrayed in all his complexities by Chiwetel Ejiofor, is living the rare, integrated life in the 1840s with his wife and two young children, accepted members of a small town in upstate New York, when he is duped by two con men, who hand him over to slave traders.

      Because of his education and resourcefulness, Solomon is able to win the admiration, and a modicum of favorable treatment, from plantation owners (impressively portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch and McQueen regular Michael Fassbender) but also inevitably raised the anger of uneducated whites who are insulted that a black man can outwit them. Paul Dano plays the most vitriolic of slave bosses, a wild-eyed racist who nearly kills Solomon for standing up to him.

       British actor Ejiofor, whose first important film role was as an undocumented immigrant in Stephen Frears’ underrated “Dirty Pretty Things” (2002), has been equally memorable as one of the leaders of the group that seems to want to save a young pregnant woman in the futuristic “Children of Men” (2006) and as the put-upon radio station manager in “Talk to Me” (2007).

       But he’s never had a role like Solomon Northup; while it’s unclear if Solomon had ever been a slave, even as a child, previous to his 12-year ordeal, he responds just like anyone would—outraged, confused and demanding justice. He soon realizes how to adapted, as best as anyone could, to this life of subjugation, unchecked hatred and hopelessness, surrounded by others who have numbed themselves to all emotions for the sake of survival. Ejiofor communicates much of these experiences through his large, sad eyes and the way he tries to give comfort to those around him.

      One of the film’s most impressive performance is by Lupita Nyong'o as a hardened young slave girl who is “favored” by owner Edwin Epps (Fassbender), suffering unthinkable emotional and physical punishment.

     Fassbender was the star of McQueen’s previous films, “Hunger,” playing an IRA prisoner who leads a hunger strike, and “Shame,” in which he plays a sex addict. Yet, at least until now, he best known as the slick-talking American uncover agent in Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.” His Epps is a self-hating, unapologetic believer in slavery who you keep thinking will come to his senses but never does (his discussion with a Canadian house builder, played by Brad Pitt, is a preview of the Lincoln-Douglas debates).

     While “12 Years a Slave,” adapted by TV writer John Ridley, has its flaws—mostly due to McQueen’s unnecessary focus in the film’s second half on the relationship between Epps and his wife—it’s an astonishing story made credible by superb acting and the director’s unblinking presentation of the inhumanity of man.

    That this chronicle of historical perseverance isn’t taught along side of the contributions of Fredrick Douglass, Nat Turner and Harriet Tubman is baffling. Sadder still is that it took a 21st Century British filmmaker to bring Solomon’s book to the big screen.

     Films with a political agenda rarely turn out very well; selling a message ends up being the guiding force of the movie rather than storytelling and character development. Yet this year’s “12 Years a Slave” and “Dallas Buyers Club” pull no punches in addressing serious social issues without sacrificing the essentials of smart commercial filmmaking.

     Anchoring “Dallas Buyers Club,” examining a subject usually reduced to righteous harangues, is Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a hard-living electrician, holed up in a dilapidated trailer, who spends his free time hanging out and taking wagers at the rodeo. He defines white trash.

     An accident at the job site sends Ron to the hospital, where he’s told—but doesn’t believe—that he has AIDS. The doctor gives him a month to live, spurring Ron to tell the doctor that he’s no “faggot” and what he can do with his diagnosis.

      Despite his skepticism, he begins doing research in the still mysterious disease (it’s 1985 and Rock Hudson has just died) and soon discovers that the medical community has little to offer sufferers.

      After illegally buying AZT (the experimental drug being offered at the time) and overdosing his body with it, he makes a visit to a Mexico clinic dispensing unapproved drugs. A discredited U.S. doctor (an almost unrecognizable Griffin Dunne) brings Ron back to a semblance of health and together they cook up the idea to sell the various drugs across the border.

     The rest of the film focuses on Ron’s fight with both the FDA and IRS as he attempts to gives comfort to the growing number of AIDS victims in the Dallas area.

    This fascinating look at the painfully slow progress of the FDA to approve drugs that could relieve the suffering of the AIDS victims is propelled by a raw, in your face performance by the ever evolving McConaughey. After most critics, myself included, had written him off as eye candy for dumb comedies, he has turned his career around with his roles over the past two years. Considering this performance and the equally memorable one in “Mud,” McConaughey could easily end up with two acting nominations when the Academy Award selections are announced in January.

       As Ron, he goes from a homophobic, drug-abusing sleazeball to a hero of the gay community, a dying man with a purpose. Yet Ron doesn’t really change, he just faces his own reality and puts his energies into survival with the same passion he previous had for more hedonistic endeavors. McConaughey, physically reducing himself to, literally, skin and bones, makes this subtle transformation believable, bringing out Ron’s humor, inventiveness and incredible determination.

     Part of his altered focus comes when he becomes acquainted with Rayon (an astonishing Jared Leto, in only his second film in six years), a cross-dressing gay man who he befriends—or, maybe, just tolerates because he helps him make money—and partners with in the buyer’s club. It’s their relationship that is at the heart of the film and brings the issues down to a human level.

    Leto manages to portray Rayon as more than a cliché, creating a very troubled individual who sees the goodness in Ron (allowing the audience to see it also) beyond his hateful words and basic greed.

    Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée (“The Young Victoria”) and writers Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack don’t hold back their disgust with the medical and pharmaceutical industry, but they never forget that making the audience care about Ron and Rayon is most important. It’s what makes “Dallas Buyers Club” one of the year’s best.

     The great Italian director Luchino Visconti, best known in this country for his epic costume drama “The Leopard” starring Burt Lancaster and his contemplative take on Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice,” might have done his best work in this simple, but moving love story.

     This contemporary film, based on Dostoevsky’s “White Nights,” is set in a picturesque quarter of an unnamed Italian city, marked by narrow cobblestone streets and a canal that winds through the middle of the neighborhood.

      Mario (Marcello Mastroianni), just back from an outing with his boss’ family, stops to comfort a young woman crying as she walks back and forth along a bridge. Natalie (Maria Schell), as she explains to Mario the next day (and is depicted in flashback), is anxiously waiting the return of an older man she fell in love with a year ago, when he was a boarder at her grandmother’s house.

     Three days in a row Mario and Natalie meet at night as she continues to pine for her dream man (played by French actor Jean Marais) while Mario falls hopelessly in love with her. The story reaches its dizzying peak when the couple takes part in a spontaneous group dance in a nightclub to Bill Haley’s “13 Women.”

    The unadorned story and dialogue is operatic in its emotional sweep—every line is steeped in meaning—enhanced by the evocative black and white cinematography by Giuseppe Rotunno (“Amarcord,” “All That Jazz”), using moody lighting and shadows more typical of crime films, and Nino Rota’s grand score. This trio of filmmakers turns this small set into a place of whispered secrets and unspoken desires, touching in its simplicity. 

     Before, and unlike, Mastroianni’s iconic performances for Fellini as Marcello in “La Dolce Vita” and Guido in “8 ½,” his Mario is a shy, unsure-of-himself man who never really understands this dreamy girl. It’s one of his best performances, in part because he’s supported so well by Austrian actress Schell (who learned Italian for the role), the emotional center of the picture. He’s just along for the ride as she deals with her school girl love she feels for this man she barely knows. Schell should have been a bigger star, yet she worked steadily in both the U.S. and Europe for 50 years.

      These two world-class performers, opposites in looks and demeanor, bring a passionate, timeless truth to “Le Notti Bianche,” brought to life by Visconti’s unmatched craftsmanship.      

PARKLAND  (2013)
   Focusing on the secondary figures of a major event can easily become pretentious and trite (see the very related “Bobby”), yet this look at those side characters who played a part in the events of Nov. 22, 1963 is a captivating view of what NBC’s David Brinkley called “one of the more horrible days in American history.”

     Watching this film on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy brought back the memories that all of us of a certain age will always share. First hearing of it, usually at school, and then digesting the enormity of it over the weekend and the following week; the confusing murder of Oswald, the epic funeral that mesmerized a stunned nation, the quickly noticed holes in the official story and the birth of the doomed savior, the first in a series of iconoclastic leaders who would be cut down by gunfire, “lone gunmen” forever altering a country’s history.

      What I remember most clearly is carefully preserving the Weekly Reader cover photo of Kennedy in Saran wrap—it survived until well after I graduated from college. More than just hero worshipping by a second grader, it represented a newfound political awareness, an appreciation of history, and the unarticulated realization that life wasn’t even close to being fair.

      Somehow—and maybe I’m projecting here a bit—“Parkland” hits on all those points as it follows the events of the day from the perspective of the supporting players surrounding the president and his assassin.

      As the title indicates, most prominent are the doctors and nurses at Parkland Memorial, who suddenly find themselves attempting to save the life of the most important man in the world. Keeping everyone focused on the task is head nurse (superbly played by Marcia Gay Harden), who we see fighting her emotions to maintain the professionalism of the ER and keeping a passionate intern (Zac Efron) from succumbing to the pressure. Two days later, they are asked again to save a life: Lee Harvey Oswald.

       Of course, the hospital is jammed with Secret Service people dealing with what they see as their failure to protect "the man," followed by their realization that it is time to shift loyalties and turn their concern to getting Lyndon Johnson safely out of Dallas. Also, roaming the room is the sad, confused figure of Jackie, still poignantly holding a piece of her husband's skull.

      One of the film’s key figures is Abraham Zapruder, (a perfectly cast Paul Giamatti), the Dallas dress shop owner and JFK devotee, who shoots the famous 8mm movie of the motorcade, capturing in vivid color, with his Bell and Howell, the killing of a president. The film takes us through the process of Zapruder dealing with Secret Service chief Forrest Sorrels (a stern, businesslike Billy Bob Thornton), the frantic attempts to find someone to develop the film and then the tense negotiations for the rights.

      Less interestingly, but needed to give the full story of the tragic day, the film chronicles Robert Oswald, Lee’s brother, who must deal with his antagonistic brother after he's taken into police custody and his weirdly delusional mother. Also, the scenes of the Dallas police detectives, who realize they had Oswald in their grasp just days before the killing, never quite come together.

     Making his directing debut, novelist and screenwriter Peter Lanesman, working from Vincent Bugliosi’s book on the killing, uses fast cutting, shallow focus and a seemingly unstructured storyline to give the picture a documentary-like look. This film, unlike the more acclaimed "Captain Phillips," chronicles how people really react in a crisis, offering an emotionally truthful, heartbreaking view behind the scenes of a most public tragedy.

THE BIG YEAR  (2011)
     A few weeks ago, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science gave out its most prestigious awards, the honorary Oscar for a lifetime of contributions to the film industry. In the past few years, winners have included actors Peter O’Toole, Sidney Poitier, Eli Wallach, Lauren Bacall and James Earl Jones along with such filmmakers as Robert Altman, Sidney Lumet and Jean-Luc Godard.

    Added to that list of movie luminaries this year was Steve Martin. Seriously. No joke. Back in the day when Martin was actually funny, 30 or so years ago, it might have made for a biting SNL skit.

     While I’ve never been a big fan of the comic actor, I certainly appreciate the good work he’s done in film: “Pennies from Heaven” (1981), “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” (1983), “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” (1987) and “Roxanne” (1987). But notice the years; at best, Martin is one of the top comic actors of the 1980s. Otherwise, his career has been filled with witless, one-joke comedies or attempts at straight acting that inevitable show Martin to be a rather uninteresting, stiff film presence.

      Just to check that I hadn’t missed some late-career resurgence of Martin, I watched “The Big Year,” an unsuccessful mix of comedy and sentiment about “birders,” those who live to spot another species of winged animals. Sounds like the perfect subject for a satirical comedy, but this isn’t it. But to the point, Martin doesn’t provide a single funny moment in the film and is completely upstaged by Jack Black and Owen Wilson. I can’t believe that the screenwriters saved their best lines for the young guys—I’m sure they were thrilled to death to be writing for the legendary Martin—yet Black and Wilson have some genuinely humorous moments and Martin is shutout.

     It typifies what I’ve seen in Martin’s films since the 1990s: a famous face who stands around while others provide the laughs. Maybe I’m being too harsh, but we’re talking about an honorary Oscar, and he’s not even 70.

      If the Academy felt the need to honor a contemporary comic actor, maybe they should have looked at the SNL alumni list a little closer and they would have found Mr. Bill Murray. Not only does Murray have more comedy classics to his name than Martin, but he’s actually funny—always; and he’s twenty times the actor, as evidenced in “Tootsie,” “Rushmore” and “Lost in Translation.”

      But let’s get serious. I love Bill, but he’s a decade too young. Shouldn’t the Academy be looking at acting legends such as Joanne Woodward, Albert Finney, Michael Caine, Doris Day and Gene Hackman, or groundbreaking filmmakers Alain Resnais, Agnés Varda, John Boorman, Robert Towne, Richard Lester and Nicolas Roeg?  

     I know what you’re thinking: who cares? But think of it as Hollywood’s version of the Hall of Fame. How can you enshrine Martin when a Michael Caine or a Robert Towne is waiting in the wings?

ALL IS LOST  (2013)
    This won’t take long: A rather old man sailing in the Indian Ocean finds himself off course and without radio communication after the boat smashes into a deserted cargo container and takes on water.

     Who is he? Why is he there? Is he a good guy or a bad guy? How long has he been away from civilization? Where is he bound for? Why am I watching a movie about him?

     None of these questions is answered by writer-director J.C. Chandor, whose previous film was the very verbal and insightful “Margin Call,” or by the unnamed character played by Robert Redford, who speaks about five lines in the movie. All that viewers are left with, lacking any knowledge about this guy, is the sometimes tense but often boring process of his attempts to be rescued.

     One cares to a point simply because he’s a person lost at sea—or maybe because the man is played by a famous movie star. The 77-year-old does well in this very physical and intense role, but it could have been played by any actor.

     I really don’t know why anyone would want to see this movie, unless you’re a yachtsman who is planning an ocean voyage. For that audience, and pretty much no one else, “All Is Lost” is essential.