Posts Tagged ‘Martin Scorsese’

The biographical film is dangerous territory. There are myriad reasons for this: the hackneyed form of the biopic, the biographical inconsistencies, the expectations that come with portraying a revered figure. Dealing with a master filmmaker is perhaps the most treacherous of territories; if your filmmaking doesn’t live up to theirs, what have you said that they couldn’t more eloquently?

When it comes to Abel Ferrara, director of Pasolini, it is well established that he has balls of steel. Whether it’s his self-starring soft-core debut 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy, the rampant punk horror The Driller Killer, or his hysterical drug cop drama Bad Lieutenant, his resume is replete with the bold, brash and explicit. But how does this confidence lend itself to the subject here, one of Ferrara’s heroes: Italian neo-realist, Catholic, Marxist, poet, writer, director Pier Paolo Pasolini? The results are fresh, authorial and not at all definitive.

Pasolini begins with Pier Paolo (Willem Dafoe) in post-production on a deeply disturbing scene from his final film Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, in which young people are raped and exploited by a fascistic political elite after the fall of Mussolini in 1943. It is a show of confidence to begin the film by referencing this famous scene; a scene representative of Pasolini’s disturbing power as a filmmaker. Fortunately Dafoe immediately cuts a striking, if Americanised, version of Pasolini and generating sufficient intrigue in the character.

There is a tone of rumination that is maintained throughout the film, which plays out Pasolini’s final day before his untimely murder. Juxtaposed with the day’s activities are scenes from an unmade Pasolini film, in which the lesbian and gay communities meet on one night a year in Rome to propagate the human race. The cutting back and forth never glimpses us quite enough of one or the other – given the film’s lean 84 minutes – but with a character as complex as Pasolini one senses that Ferrara intends to create a snapshot rather than a complete portrait.

The film does not attempt to provide us with a comprehensive understanding of Pasolini, nor does it attempt to wrap his death up in an overly ambitious poetic, or political logic. What the film does do is glimpse aspects of a renegade thinker and polymath artist, as seen through the eyes of the generation he influenced most profoundly. It is a reimagining and an attempt at humanising the figure. We see him in his role as an intellectual, as a gay man and as a family figure; he was profoundly attached to his beloved mother.

It is in playing to his own strengths that Ferrara makes a success of Pasolini. He is clearly at home working with Dafoe, whose own work as Jesus in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ was an even more preposterous, yet fascinating interpretation of a figure of moral significance. Ferrara’s own thematic interests are present in Pasolini: ethics, faith, politics and the alienation of modern life. This is the work of a committed fan and student of Pasolini and not one who claims to possess all the answers.

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THE WOLF OF WALL STREETWell, someone’s got their mojo back. After a series of solid if unspectacular films, the diminutive Italian-American has recaptured the verve and energy of his 90’s output. The Wolf of Wall Street can be placed alongside Scorsese’s epic crime sagas Goodfellas and Casino, both in ambition and, more importantly, execution. What’s more, his long frustrating collaboration with heartthrob Di Caprio finally bears some fruit. So often looking like an ill conceived relationship of mutual flattery, we finally see the duo working to both their strengths.

The much discussed story is based on the rise and fall of Jordan Belfort, a self starting stock broker in 80’s New York. Arriving into the city as a starry eyed innocent, Belfort is soon inducted into the hedonistic ways of his charismatic superior (a show stealing Matthew McConaughey). When the company falls prey to the stock market crash, Belfort starts his own company selling dodgy deals to unassuming halfwits up and down the country. Soon the company begins to flourish and the money, drugs and, ahem, female companionship, start to flow.

Ably abetted by his trusted sidekick Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), Belfort juggles his burgeoning business with a troubled home life with his wife Naomi (Margot Robbie) and a persistent FBI agent on his trail (Kyle Chandler). The film is structured a lot like Casino and Goodfellas. We have the auspicious beginnings, the ascent into success and hedonism and immorality, then the inglorious fall. A cynic might label it formulaic, but it works. I think as viewers we find a strange pleasure in seeing something constructed, even if what is being constructed is deeply troubling. Belfort’s ascent, with the wild parties, drugs and booze is utterly irresistible.

Keeping in mind the somewhat unfavourable view the public has of the banking system right now, this should go down like a sack of lead. Yet Scorsese’s film making prowess makes the journey outrageously entertaining. All the Scorsese tricks are here; the slow Caravaggio-esque pans across crowds and the raucous rock music on the soundtrack. Yet there is something even more psychedelic about this particular film. To really recreate the hazy comedown of Belfort’s drug years, Scorsese makes use of disjointed editing and gauzy visuals to authenticate the experience. There is a particularly joyous sequence in which Belfort consumes a melee of quaaludes, only to find he has to escape the FBI in his car.

Leonardo Di Caprio turns in one of his greatest performances yet as Belfort. Often he has looked misplaced in Scorsese’s films, a pretty boy trying to act like the tough guy. This role is much more in his domain; Belfort is charismatic, cocky and ultimately, wild. Belfort is much like Ray Liotta’s character in Goodfellas, someone riding their luck and unable to see the end game. Di Caprio manages to instil a charm and pathos in him that makes him hard to dislike. Jonah Hill is also superb as the eager assistant, loyal to the bone and with his own wild streak. He is a perfect comic foil.

There are a few slight niggles. As with many of these macho gangster rise and fall films, the female characters get completely waylaid. You can predict every beat of their relationship with from the off; the seduction, the kids, the descent and the divorce. Although it is loosely based on true events it feels completely cliched- does anyone really care about this sub pot? Probably not. The film ends with a beautifully cheeky moment as Belfort addresses a seminar of people wanting to learn how to become the next ‘Jordan Belfort’. It perfectly conveys the paradoxical nature of the film: one part of us condemns these shysters, and the other part revels in their degeneracy.

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Drive is a Hollywood film directed by a distinctly European director. Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn rethinks the Hollywood crime thriller with minimal dialogue, strong colour, offbeat casting and an idiosyncratic soundtrack. While embracing it’s influences Drive also subverts numerous cliches and Refn shows a remarkable talent for crafting scenes that are emotionally gripping and utterly tense.


David Michod’s debut feature feels like the work of an accomplished Australian equivalent to Michael Mann. Animal Kingdom tells the story of a naive young man in the midst of a dangerous crime family and the havoc he causes them. With an impressive cast including Ben Mendelsohn and Jackie Weaver, Michod rarely puts a foot wrong, from the staging of each scene to his choice of music. Not only an extremely impressive debut, but a great Australian film.


Werner Herzog has been working hard lately, with the release of Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Into The Abyss premiering at various festivals in 2011. Out of the two unique documentaries Into The Abyss hits the hardest, with some of the best interviews Herzog has ever conducted. Probing the subject of death row Herzog puts together a restrained, yet unmistakably Herzogian investigation, which places moral  questions centre stage.


Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In is an intriguing, intelligently structured and stylish film that successfully pulls the rug from under the audience’s feet in a manner that is as entertaining as it is unsettling. Almodovar blends classic horror with the themes he is famous for and gains great performances from his cast. Antonio Banderas turns in a dark, well judged portrayl and Elena Anaya brilliantly gains the audiences empathy within an utterly bizarre scenario.


Midnight In Paris sees Woody Allen at the top of his game. Owen Wilson plays a screenwriter (Gil), who aspires to become a novelist. He falls in love with Paris while on holiday with his fiancé (and her parents) and begins wandering the streets at night revelling in the city’s mythology. Upon meeting a number of unlikely personalities, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemmingway and Salvador Dali among others, Gil becomes far removed from his normal life to wonderfully Allenesque effect.


Where Drive was an American production directed by a Dane, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a British one directed by a Swede. Tomas Alfredson brings a distinctly Scandinavian approach to this classic cold war story. Like his vampire film Let The Right One In, Tinker Tailor makes use of wide open spaces juxtaposed with dingy interiors to create an appropriate paranoia. Alfredson’s remarkable ensemble cast create numerous memorable performances, particularly Gary Oldman as George Smiley.


An ode to cinema by Martin Scorsese, Hugo tells the tale of French film director George Meilies through the eyes of a young boy called Hugo Cabret. Directed with a youthful flare by Scorsese, we follow Hugo’s journey to fix an automaton left behind by his late father, which leads him to a discovery of Meilies forgotten cinema career. The story of a young man discovering cinema and it’s possibilities for the first time is clearly one close to Scorsese’s heart; that’s why Hugo is such a good film.


Dreams of a Life and it’s central character Joyce Vincent captured the hearts and minds of cinema goers this Christmas. Joyce Vincent died in 2003 in her North London bedsit and went undiscovered for three years. She had been a popular, outgoing and successful young woman who became increasingly alienated in the years preceding her death. Director Carol Morley investigates the circumstances that lead to Joyce’s death and meets with friends, boyfriends, colleagues and others to paint a portrait (using excellently performed reconstructions and talking head interviews) of a woman who no one would expect society to leave behind.


John Bunting, Australia’s most notorious serial killer is the subject of Snowtown. Directed by Justin Kurzel, with cinematography by Animal Kingdom DOP Adam Arkapaw, this film is a gruelling telling of a series of crimes orchestrated by Bunting between 1992 and 1999. The film’s graphic style is tough going even for hardened film viewers, but Daniel Henshall’s intelligent and rounded performance as Bunting demands the audience’s attention. Along with Animal Kingdom, Snowtown shows contemporary Australian cinema in a very good light.


Wim Wender’s tribute to the late Pina Bausch contains perhaps the best use of 3D seen in 2011. The film, made after Pina’s death, sees Wenders stage the choreographers work in a manner that complements her work effectively. The juxtaposition of Pina’s choreography and Wender’s choice of locations, camera work and music creates a kind of posthumous collaboration, which functions as both a moving tribute to and preservation of Pina’s remarkable style of choreography.


Honorary mention:

The Story of Film: An Odyssey (Dir. Mark Cousins) – UK

A remarkable television series for Channel 4 telling the history of film in Mark Cousins’ unique style.

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Upon viewing the initial trailer for Martin Scorsese’s Hugo I was sceptical. Had Scorsese made a children’s film, aimed at the Harry Potter generation? As a fan of classic Scorsese (Taxi Driver being my favourite) I was taken aback. It seemed to me that this film didn’t have much to do with what made Scorsese’s previous work great; I expected tough guys, existential crisis, catholic guilt and guns. To me a story of a boy living in a train station, fixing mechanical objects, didn’t seem true to form. Clearly I knew nothing of Scorsese’s work, but Hugo enlightened me.

Hugo entwines the narrative of young orphan Hugo’s adventure to discover a message from his deceased father, and the biographically rooted story of French film director Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley). Méliès made over five hundred films from about 1896 to 1913, only to spend his last years living in relative poverty working at a toy store in the Montparnasse station, Paris. Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) meets the bitter Méliès whilst trying to steal parts to fix an automaton, which he believes will fill the void his father’s death left him.

The automaton becomes a symbol of Hugo’s dreams and the dreams that Méliès once had, which were since crushed. In setting out to fix the automaton Hugo’s boyish aspirations come into conflict with Méliès cynicism. The story of childhood persistence versus adult bitterness is nothing new, but it rings true with a great vitality. Scorsese directs Hugo with a youthful visual approach, employing sweeping long takes and elaborate dream sequences which enchant us into Hugo’s world. This inventive direction is clearly fuelled by Scorsese’s own passion for the work of Méliès and of course cinema itself.

Scorsese is a filmmaker at his best when his work is both personal and driven by his intense passion for cinema. When Scorsese made Taxi Driver in the mid 1970’s, he was often equated with the troubled central character Travis Bickle and this contributed to the film’s authenticity. Like Taxi Driver, Hugo sees Scorsese taking on a character close to his heart. Watching the final scene of Hugo I realised that this film could perhaps be Scorsese’s most profound statement, representing his pure boyish love of cinema in the most moving way to date.

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Inspired by a recent viewing of Peter Watkin’s biopic Edvard Munch, I will be looking briefly at a number of films about artists. There have been countless films concerning famous painters over the years, but I have narrowed my selection down to a few favourites, an eclectic bunch of films.  I will be focusing my attention on Andrei Rublev, Basquiat, Nightwatching, Love is the Devil, Caravaggio and Life Lessons from New York Stories.


Andrei Rublev is perhaps the most ambitious film about an artist alongside Edvard Munch. For me Andrei Tarkovsky’s best film, combining dazzling visuals and unforgettable set pieces (the balloon escape, the pagans by the river), with philosophical and religious themes. Anatoli Solonitsyn plays the 15th century painter, struggling in a turbulent period of Russian history. This is painting as a religious experience, mirrored by Tarkovsky’s transcendental cinematic vision.


Directed by Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), Basquiat stars Jeffrey Wright as the New York painter.  A penniless street artist, he is discovered by some fashionable art insiders and lauded as the next big thing. Basquiat shows the artist’s fertile imagination and creativity, while strongly evoking hip 1980’s New York. An all star cast including Benicio Del Toro, Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken add to the glamour.


This is essentially a Dutch film about an iconic Dutch painter. Peter Greenaway, a British exile working in Holland, is a huge admirer of Rembrandt’s work. Martin Freeman plays the title character with both dry humour and a hint of resignation. The film is one of Greenaway’s most moving, but what is most impressive is the way that the mise-en-scene and cinematography conspire to ape Rembrandt’s own paintings. The striking use of light and sparse sets almost seem at one with the subject.


Derek Jacobi turns in an excellent performance as Francis Bacon in this bleak biopic. The film focuses on his relationship with George Dyer (Daniel Craig), a gangster-like younger man who steals (literally) into his life. Their volatile love affair entwines with Bacon’s ugly/beautiful paintings, filled with distorted bodies. Director Maybury signals how Bacon’s masochistic impulses in life filtered into his artwork.


The tumultuous life of the Italian painter is brought to screen by Derek Jarman. Actually, Nigel Terry’s portrayal of the artist is fairly tame when you consider the stories of him as a hellraiser. Sure, there are infidelities, assaults and even murder, but Jarman portrays this almost as a natural progression for Caravaggio. The film looks beautiful and stark, similar to Nightwatching. A striking depiction of a life lived on the edge.


New York Stories is a little seen trilogy of mini films directed by the finest New York directors of the 70’s. Woody Allen’s comedy is a joy, but Francis Ford Coppola’s segment (co-written by a pre-pubescent Sofia Coppola) is a fluffy, misguided kids film. My favourite is Martin Scorsese’s Life Stories, starring Nick Nolte as a middle aged professional painter. This is the only non-biopic in this piece, but I thought it was worth including because of it’s depiction of the actual practice. Tormented by impatient dealers and temperamental lovers, Nolte’s character throws himself into violent bursts of painting. Scorsese’s camera lingers over the vigorous brushstrokes as the Rolling Stones’ boom out of the record player.

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