26 July 2008

THE DARK KNIGHT (Dir. Christopher Nolan, 2008, US) - Nolan reigns supreme in the comic book genre

When a genre is still in it’s infancy, it becomes problematic to identify any film as a benchmark especially given the fact that for a genre to produce exemplary cinema, it must constantly evolve and invent a new set of conventions. The comic book genre has had a troubled relationship with fans and critics alike because of its notoriously superficial nature and wafer thin critical reputation, but ever since Hollywood started to lure artistically inclined filmmakers working outside the mainstream like Ang Lee, Bryan Singer and Christopher Nolan to oversee the launch of potentially lucrative comic book franchises, audiences have been assaulted with films that have been able to offer a degree of intelligent filmmaking which is both commercially rewarding and faithful to the original source material. Admittedly, filmmakers like Ang Lee who refuse to compromise or dilute their art-house authorial instinct have been rejected by Hollywood studios and his adaptation of ‘The Hulk’ was much loved by film critics but hated by audiences.

The second film in the new Batman series, ‘The Dark Knight’, has gone on to make box office history by becoming the film with the all time biggest opening weekend, and the unanimous critical response and deep adoration by fans of the comic book soon pushed the film to occupy the number one position in the IMDB chart, eclipsing ‘The Godfather’. Last week, the Guardian newspaper printed a feature specifically about whether the industry and critics should take such a chart as the top 250 films on the IMDB website seriously as film buffs do. I am sure the industry will and already do take such a chart quite seriously as it allows them to carry out demographic analysis that is useful for marketing their tent pole summer blockbusters. Much hype surrounded the release of ‘The Dark Knight’, and Warner Bros aggressively promoted the film with a fearsome marketing campaign that has really pushed the film into new audience groups who normally would stay away from such nerdy dark fantasy role-playing. Many of the films released this summer have not met my expectations and have often been over hyped, but British director, Christopher Nolan’s follow up to ‘Batman Begins’ is clearly without any doubt the best summer film of 2008, and is perhaps the best comic book film that has yet been made by a Hollywood studio.

The primary reason why ‘The Dark Knight’ is such a breathtaking piece of mainstream Hollywood genre filmmaking is because the film exceeds expectations and delivers on the promise of surpassing the first film with such an air of confidence that the film ends up transcending genre limitations, becoming much more than just great a comic book film. Nolan has said that Michael Mann’s epic crime opus, ‘Heat’, was the inspiration for ‘The Dark Knight’, and though Nolan was never going to be able to surpass the brilliance of Mann’s definitive crime film, what he does offer us is an emotionally operatic and tragic mainstream crime thriller that succeeds in balancing interesting characterisation with impressive visceral action sequences.

David Goyer and Nolan had initially entertained the possibility of introducing Harvey Dent’s character in the first film but they felt that they could not do him justice, and on reflection, this was a bold step, as ‘The Dark Knight’ is a film that is not about Batman, but about Harvey Dent’s fall from grace, and it is due to Nolan’s gift as a scriptwriter that this compelling comic book film never once compromises characterisation in favour of pointless narrative momentum. Harvey Dent’s promise of a new future of civil law and order is what Gotham has been waiting for, but the appearance of ‘The Joker’ (Heath Ledger) creates absolute chaos and anarchy, leading to the corruption of Dent’s values, and eventually turning him into a vengeful figure of uncontrollable rage and pathos. Both Bruce Wayne and Commissioner Gordon refer to Dent as Gotham’s ‘White Knight’, and interestingly enough, his closest ally and inadvertent alter ego is Batman, a vigilante who exists to serve the immoral impulses of a society that has lost the will to faces its own enemies. The real coup was being able to get Heath Ledger to take on the role of 'The Joker', and his final performance is superbly executed and his portrayal is twisted, demented and full of energy. Nolan was instrumental in playing down an origins story for 'The Joker', and this really leaves the character with an ambiguous back story that will probably be explored in another film.

The Gothic aesthetics of Tim Burton have almost become a thing of the past, and Nolan’s radical reworking of the mythology of Batman returned to the true darkness of the original comic book, creating a morally ambivalent figure that is strangely empathetic and revolutionary. Nolan’s choice of casting is both inspired and brilliant, securing the acting talents of Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Aaron Eckhardt and Gary Oldman, all who are exceptionally talented actors and help to elevate the credibility of the film. Supported by a beautifully orchestrated musical score composed by the pairing of Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, and shot with a real eye for urban architecture, ‘The Dark Knight’ ends on a magnificently poised moment as Batman is transformed into the villain and is forced to go on the run.

Only a filmmaker like Nolan could pull of such an audacious ending as we are denied closure, and such unconventional narrative approach is indicative of world cinema, but the fact that Nolan applies such a principle to a populist blockbuster is perhaps the reason why ‘The Dark Knight’ is such a bold, daring and fascinating example of what is possible within the constraints of a genre that is routinely ridiculed by film criticism. For now, Nolan reigns supreme in the arena of blockbuster cinema.

22 July 2008

SUNRISE: A Song of Two Humans (Dir. F W Murnau, 1927, US) - One of the great achievements of early cinema

Early silent cinema produced many masterpieces that are still considered to be influential today, and few filmmakers can lay claim to having helped contribute to the lexicon of film grammar, shaping to a large extent what cinema is today. German filmmaker, F W Murnau graduated from the ranks of the post war expressionist movement, creating the first definitive horror film with the vampire classic, ‘Nosferatu’. His most notable Hollywood feature film production was ‘Sunrise’, a film made for the Fox Studio, and considered by many to be a creative high point in early Hollywood cinema. Murnau status as a pioneer is undiminished and he stands alongside greats like D W Griffith, Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock for having given birth to the language of film that could be used to tell a story and provoke an emotional response from the spectator.

Though it would be crude to categorise Murnau, it is interesting to do so when comparing him to early silent filmmakers who became recognised for a certain specialism within the art of movie making. If Hitchcock was the master of suspense, Lang was a stunning social commentator, and Griffith a fantastically astute editor, then Murnau was one of the first visually aware filmmakers who privileged the mise en scene over all other cinematic elements. Thus, it is interesting to see ‘Sunrise’ as almost a visual poem rather than a conventional Hollywood film, even if it is handicapped by a soppy and conservative love story.

I first encountered ‘Sunrise’ when Martin Scorsese’ journey through American cinema aired on Channel Four in the 90s, and having finally had the opportunity to watch ‘Sunrise’, what strikes me more than anything else about this silent masterpiece is Murnau’s technically complex and startling use of film language when at the time cinema was still considered to be quite primitive and very much in it’s infancy. Many of the German filmmakers who emerged out of the short lived expressionist movement expressed a fascination with the image of the city, and ‘Sunrise’, like Lang’s ‘Metropolis’ is one of the first Hollywood films to worship and celebrate the city as a symbol of industrialisation and architectural achievement. Ideologically, Murnau represents the city as an extension of paradise, and in contrast to the corrupt rural heartland of America, the city is depicted as a force of moral goodness, offering the chance of redemption and a prosperous future to idealists and dreamers.

Much of what Murnau achieves in terms of emotions is through a visually forceful use of superimposition's, cross dissolves and stark symbolism that offers direct links to his background in expressionism. Though this was a studio film and offers explicit closure in the form a conventional happy ending, it is not the story or the performances that stand out, but the fact that Murnau made the film in Hollywood on his own terms and mastered the technical achievements that he had helped pioneer earlier in German cinema.

KINGS OF THE ROAD / IM LAUF DER ZEIT (Dir. Wim Wenders, 1976, Germany) - The Definitive European Road Movie

Wim Wender’s 1976 definitive 3 hour epic road movie is a wonderfully uplifting and life affirming cinematic experience, and shows a filmmaker at the peak of his creative powers before he became just another director who’s recent work in no way lives up to the brilliance of films like ‘Wings of Desire’ and ‘An American Friend’. Mysteriously still unavailable on DVD in the UK, ‘Kings of the Road’ is a film that uses the genre of the road movie, a deeply American genre and one that Wenders has returned to many times, to explore the oldest male quest; existentialism.

Beautifully shot in black and white by long time Wenders collaborator, Robby Muller, one of the great European cinematographers, and using a loose, episodic narrative time frame, ‘Kings of the Road’ is about a travelling projectionist mechanic, Bruno Winter (Rudiger Vogler) and a hitchhiker, Robert Lander (Hanns Zischler), who journey through rural Germany encountering a projection of their own lived histories and meeting an assortment of memorable and quirky characters. The imagery is close to aesthetic perfection and is accompanied by a wacky electric guitar soundtrack that seems to punctuate the character's gradual awakening as they are made to face up to their own individual limitations and failures as men within a new German society.

Like the best road movies, Wenders film is a meditation on a number of personal and social themes like the disappearance of cinema exhibition within rural German communities, the difficulty with communication and male loneliness, but what makes this such a memorable entry in the road movie genre is it's love of the journey, and how making a journey is far more important than the unknown destination to which they are travelling. Unmissable and essential viewing.

19 July 2008

THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE (Dir. John Cassavetes, 1976, US) - A genuine masterpiece from one of America's true independent voices

John Cassavetes enthralling neo noir thriller, ‘The killing of a Chinese bookie’ has one of the most unusual and cryptic titles for a film, and is reminiscent of Peckinpah’s ‘Bring me the head of Alfredo Garcia’, in how it uses the title to create a sense of aura and enigma before the first images of Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara) appear on screen, illustrating his magnetism as a nightclub owner who is a man for whom style seems to be everything. Perhaps it was the difficult title that kept audiences away from Cassavetes film when it was released in 1976 but that seems like a simplistic and convenient means of trying to account for the commercial failure of films that represent a decidedly oppositional means of approaching traditional Hollywood genres.

Though one could easily explain the brilliance of this film by placing Cassavetes’ masterful thriller alongside the bold and daring Hollywood films that emerged out of the 70s, however, this would overlook the significant truth about Cassavetes career as a filmmaker, and how he had spent much of the late 60s and early 70s pioneering his idiosyncratic cinematic style way years before auteur as a marketing brand became synonymous with directors like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. One of the regular strategies Cassavetes implemented whenever he set out to make a new film was to draw from the range of actors and technicians that he had successfully been able to nurture and train so that they would become almost like an extended family on set, making it altogether more easy to make a film with a low budget.

Cassavetes was an actor himself and not a very good one, but his self awareness meant he was able to use his status as a Hollywood supporting actor to finance his own independent personal projects. His acting origins dictated much of Cassavetes approach to cinema, and the one element that is readily identifiable across his body of work is that of performance; it is the multi faceted performance by Ben Gazzara that is at the centre of ‘The Killing of a Chinese bookie’, a film that is all about the art of performing to convince others of an existence of a self belief which is fading and subject to all kinds of ridicule. Discounting ‘Gloria’ (1981), ‘The Killing of a Chinese Bookie’ is perhaps the closest Cassavetes came to producing a genre film, and even though the film could have done with some restructuring of certain scenes, it succeeds largely in depicting a very personal and fascinating character study of a flawed individual who like noir protagonists before him becomes subject to forces beyond his control, namely the local unsavoury hoodlums and gangsters.

Cosmo Vitelli is an over eager exotic nightclub owner who thinks a lot of himself and assumes he treats the dancers who work at his club as if they were part of his forgotten family. Cassavetes seems unconcerned with the notion that Cosmo is in debt to the local gangsters, and if the film had been made by a Hollywood director, then the relationship between the gangsters and Cosmo would have taken a greater narrative imperative, but what intrigues Cassavetes are the details and edges of the life and reality that Cosmo inhabits. Authenticity is an aesthetic principle visible in virtually every frame of this film, and in light of today’s inflated budgets and sophisticated technical possibilities, the want to capture reality honestly and authentically has slipped away from the agenda of many filmmakers, but watching any film directed by Cassavetes reaffirms one’s faith in the social realism philosophy and how it can be achieved without becoming redundant and disjunctive.

In one of the tensest sequences you are ever likely to come across in a noir film, Cosmo is forced to kill a Chinese bookie in exchange for clearing his debts with the local gangsters. Cosmo has no choice when he meets the gangsters and they dictate to him the terms and conditions if he doesn’t want end up dead. Though Cosmo never really realises that he has been manipulated from the very start and that his weakness as a poor gambler has been exploited for more sinister purposes, he morphs into the figure of the doomed protagonist with an air of tragedy reserved for those who stalk the pages of Shakespeare. Cassavetes shoots the sequence with no incidental music, no real manipulation of the soundtrack, mostly natural lighting, and a magnificent inter cut between the gaunt faces of both Cosmo and the bookie; the affect is simply cinematic genius when you take into account how Cassavetes makes effective use of minimal resources to produce a sequence of raw, terrifying emotional power.

Ben Gazzara was unhappy with the final shape of the film and criticised Cassavetes for making the film too long and he felt that many of the sequences in the nightclub could have been cut down. Cassavetes re edited the film and made it much shorter, releasing the film again in 1978, in a version that seemed to reflect the comments of Gazzara. Criterion’s recent release of five key Cassavetes films including an array of useful extras have offered the chance for audiences to see both versions of the film. ‘The Killing of a Chinese Bookie’ has been the film that has really changed my opinion of Cassavetes, and I can clearly understand now why he is considered to be one of the first and last of the great American independent visionaries.

18 July 2008

TWILIGHT (Dir. Robert Benton, 1997, US) - A hidden gem of a movie, starring the ever cool Paul Newman

Prior to declaring himself officially retired after his final film role as the Irish gangster, John Rooney in Sam Mendes underrated gangster film, ‘Road to Perdition’, the legend that is Paul Newman was one of the most formidable, charismatic and coolest Hollywood actors of his generation. Contemporaries like Eastwood, Beatty, Hackman and Hoffman have all showed longevity and this in no doubt has been helped by their ability to age gracefully. Unlike Eastwood and Hoffman who continue to challenge themselves with the types of roles offered to the older generation, Newman effectively announced his retirement after he received the Oscar for best actor in 1986 when he reprised his role of Fast Eddie Felson in Scorsese’s ‘The Colour of Money’, a sequel to ‘The Hustler’, featuring arguably Newman’s greatest role as a disillusioned pool hall charlatan.

That’s not to say Newman had been waiting specifically for his Oscar so he could semi retire from Hollywood, and pursue his love of racing cars and home made sauces. Although a method actor, Newman made the entire process of performance a natural one by using his effortless charm and screen presence to generate sympathy for many of the characters he portrayed. Unlike Brando and Hoffman who were extremists when it came to implementing the method approach, Newman rejected physical transformation for an emphasis on spoken dialogue, subtle gestures and memorable mannerisms that left a deep impression on films like ‘Cool Hand Luke’, ‘The Left Handed Gun’, and ‘The Verdict’.

The films Newman made in the 90s were limited to just a handful, and his close collaborations with writer-director Robert Benton in ‘Nobody’s Fool’ and ‘Twilight’ are intelligent meditations on growing old. Whilst ‘Nobody’s Fool’ attracted notable critical acclaim, the follow up film, ‘Twilight, released in 1997 was the one that went unnoticed, deemed a commercial failure and quickly released onto VHS before it became another one of those interesting failures that critics like to write about when they have to put together a cannon of forgotten gems. ‘Twilight’ is a hidden gem and a forgotten film of the contemporary neo noir genre that rightfully deserves a place within the cannon of the best noirs made in the 90s, sharing company with films like ‘The Usual Suspects’ and ‘The Underneath’ for its intriguing updating of conventions.

Unlike most contemporary noir films, ‘Twilight’ is a film that really does model itself on the detective narrative, and finds it greatest parallels with the first phase of the noir movement, paying homage to classics like ‘The Maltese Falcon’, ‘Murder, My Sweet’ and ‘Out of the Past’. You could almost position ‘Twilight’ alongside another 90s noir film, ‘LA Confidential’, that also used the backdrop of Hollywood glamour, wealth and corruption to explore the noir dynamics. Though ‘Twilight’ is set within the confines of contemporary America, it is a film very much about the past, an old Hollywood that is recognisable in Benton’s inspired use of locations, that all hark back to familiar cinematic noir imagery, underlining how Newman and James Garner’s ageing private investigators are relics who have lost their place within a new society that prides itself on vanity, impulsiveness and momentary pleasures as symbolised in the naive and foolish characters played by Leiv Schreiber and Reese Witherspoon.

If ‘Twilight’ is another traditional noir tale of the femme fatale’s manipulation of male anxieties then what exactly makes this example of genre filmmaking so good? Ultimately, it all narrows down to coherent and engaging storytelling that allows the narrative to unfold with a degree of artistic sensibility and poise, permitting the audience spectator to become enamoured to the instantly likable persona of Harry (Paul Newman). Harry is a morally ambivalent character who lets himself become emotionally entangled in a guilt ridden relationship with Catharine (Susan Sarandon), a retired Hollywood actress who in true noir style spends her time skinny dipping whilst chain smoking like an embittered heroine from a Howard Hawks movie. James Garner is brilliantly cast as a corrupt and wealthy ex-detective who has comfortably retired in the Hollywood hills, living in an an architectural paradise of glass that offers him some degree of limited protection from his own shameful past.

Paul Newman like Warren Beatty has now officially retired from film acting but he chose to do so with a dignity and grace that is befitting of an actor of such emphatic humility. Like Clint Eastwood and Jack Nicholson, he is cemented his iconic status a long time with only a handful of films, and when Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) and in 'The Road to Perdition' guns down John Rooney (Paul Newman) towards the end of the film, he simply stares blankly at the camera, and though we know he is a dead man, we also know that we are watching somebody who is just more than a film star.

15 July 2008

TO SLEEP WITH ANGER (Dir. Charles Burnett, 1990, US) - Is Charles Burnett the most important black filmmaker to have emerged out of American cinema?

If fans or critics alike of the American independent movement were asked to name the single most important black filmmaker to have emerged out of the movement many would perhaps cite the obvious choice; Spike Lee and his breakout film, ‘She’s Gotta Have It’. But such a choice is largely determined by what the media has told us about black American cinema, and figures like Spike Lee and Denzel Washington are routinely referred to as influential and important artists. Though nobody is denying the enriching contribution Lee and Washington have brought to American cinema, they fall short of claiming the right to call themselves as independent, marginal figures articulating the concerns of middle class African Americans through a starkly realist approach.

Charles Burnett is one black filmmaker who can claim such a label as his career is the true reflection of the struggles and dilemmas most black filmmakers face when trying to communicate a truth that cannot be vocalised through the blandness of a stylised apolitical mainstream Hollywood cinema. Charles Burnett has always been championed by those who have had the privilege of watching his remarkably unique and bold films but for virtually over a decade he has been sidelined by mainstream film critics and the industry. However, the recent release of his films on DVD especially his startling debut, ‘Killer of Sheep’, made in 1977, reveals how much of the great cinema coming out of the new 70s Hollywood was not solely being directed by nerdy middle class white guys with a love of nouvelle vague auteurs like Godard and Resnais. Unlike his contemporaries (Spike Lee), Burnett struggled to find adequate distribution for his films, and the poor distribution of many of his feature films seemed to prematurely finish off a promising career before it even got started.

Burnett’s last major feature film was ‘The Glass Shield’ in 1994, a studio film made for Miramax who messed around with the final shape of the film before it was given a truncated release into the middle of nowhere. After ‘The Glass Shield’, Burnett’s filmography on IMDB provides a telling illustration of how difficult he found it to make the films he wanted to and on his own terms. Most of the work he has completed since ‘The Glass Shield’ has been for television, and it is so sad to see how such a brilliant and emotionally honest filmmaker like Burnett had to simply surrender his neo realist principles and ideologically truthful depiction of African American community life in order to continue working as an artist. The neglect and dismissal of Burnett is classic Hollywood syndrome, that of feeling threatened by artists who refuse to compromise a view that is somewhat oppositional and radical in relation to traditional apolitical ideologies, as was the case with Burnett’s unflinching representation of an area of African American culture that was rarely seen in films, that of the black middle class family.

‘To Sleep with Anger’ is by far the most complete and fully realised film that Burnett has made to date, and it has also been his most widely accessible film, having been made available on VHS and DVD in the UK through the 90s. The film was recently given a DVD release by the British Film Institute who have long championed his work and importance as a filmmaker, and who are currently showing a season of his films at the BFI South bank in London. Danny Glover’s involvement with the production of the film helped Burnett make the film he wanted, and Glover’s attachment to the project also ensured financing and distribution were relatively easy to secure. Beginning with ‘Killer of Sheep’, all of Burnett’s films have used the motif of the family as a means of exploring tensions that exist within the lives of ordinary, working class African Americans who are trying to attain middle class ideals.

‘To Sleep with Anger’ is a film about a drifter named Harry Mention (Danny Glover) who turns up unexpectedly at the door of his old friend, Gideon, who he has not seen in many a years. Harry’s presence in the house creates havoc amongst the family, eventually leading to violence, and death. Shot with a darkly comic tone, Burnett seems quite ambivalent about Harry’s character because even though he is a bad influence on Gideon’s morally bankrupt son, Harry can also be viewed as a liberating force, helping to transform the lives of a fragmented family and bringing them closer together. At the heart of narrative is a conflict between the old values of the South and the progressive face of urban African American communities that had emerged out of the Reagan era of ghetto politics. The traditions and rituals of the South is strikingly symbolised in Harry who places a great deal of emphasis on superstition unlike Gideon who is a believer of reason and rational thinking.

Beautifully understated direction, supported with a wealth of realist performances, ‘To Sleep with Anger’ is American independent cinema at its finest, and though Burnett was never given the opportunity to stretch himself as a director and explore other cinematic possibilities, his contribution to cinema should be positioned alongside the work of other great ‘humanist’ filmmakers like Rossellini, De Sica and perhaps even Kiarostami.

13 July 2008

KUNG FU PANDA (Dir. John Stevenson, Mark Osborne, 2008, US) - Solid entertainment but at who's expense?

Ever since Dreamworks Animation rewrote the rules for animated feature films, audiences have become a great deal more sophisticated in how they engage with contemporary Hollywood animation. The 'Shrek' films, that have got progressively worse, opened a new avenue for Hollywood in the 90s, self reflexive and postmodern animated feature films with references to popular culture aimed specifically at an adult audience that has typically been lumped together with the kids and treated as family entertainment.

'Kung Fu Panda' follows in the tradition of such films, this time skillfully plagiarising the great martial arts films to have come out of Hong Kong but fusing such playful references with an inspired approach to finding the right actors to complete the voice overs for the various animated characters. Only Jack Black could have imbued the character of a lovable Panda with such guile, wit and spot on cross generational humour. Po, the Panda who dreams of becoming as legendary as the Furious Five is the giant green ogre all over again, but this time his 'journey' is one rooted in the culturally familiar and narrow view of East Asian Chinese folklore that we all relate to as exotic and fraught with danger.

Such stereotypes of the East are not only representative of long held xenophobic attitudes that have circulated amongst the elite of the media and Hollywood in particular, they also capitalise on much of the current social fascination with the martial arts genre as evident in the international success of recent films like 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' and 'Hero'. However, none of this stops 'Kung Fu Panda' from being an incredibly entertaining and hugely enjoyable Hollywood summer movie, which means there is only really one thing left to say - Skadoosh!!!

12 July 2008

LE TROU / THE HOLE (Dir. Jacques Becker, 1960, France) - Revisiting The Prison Genre

Five cons sharing the same jail cell and digging a hole to freedom sounds like another formulaic plotline we would have expected from a Hollywood prison movie in the 1940s but such understated simplicity is what makes director Jacques Becker’s last film, ‘Le Trou’, a tense and moving study of male camaraderie, prison life and betrayal. Beginning with Paul Muni’s explosive performance in the groundbreaking, ‘I Was A Fugitive From A Chain Gang’, prison life afforded filmmakers with the chance of using the prison as a microcosm to comment upon the social ills of contemporary American life.

Nothing much has changed; even today filmmakers like ‘Frank Darabont’ with ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ and ‘The Green Mile’ have offered definitive examples of the genre, using the conventions as a means of dealing with the contradictions and infinite mysteries of the human condition. If humanism is the driving force behind the appeal of the prison movie then we could possibly trace the influence back to the neo realist films of the Italian masters like De Sica in which characters were repeatedly entangled in a maze of spiritual and moral uncertainty, only to realise how society is one giant prison that traps and narrows the ambitions of individuals attempting to survive. Such a connection seems valid when you consider how films like ‘Cool Hand Luke’, ‘The Birdman of Alcatraz’ and ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ are interested in the value of hope as a core humanist ideology that will help liberate those that have become privy to the propaganda of prison life as an institutional means of control and tool for suppressing any ideas of reformation.

Resurrection and redemption have dominated the thematic and emotional language of the American prison movie, and when Andy Dufrane (Tim Robbins) escapes from Shawshank prison as Morgan Freeman’s voice over informs us of his spiritual journey through a tunnel of shit and sewage, we are helpless to the sentimental celebration of the human spirit, as the capacity to persevere and overcome transcends all cultures, acting as a form of universal cinematic language. The frighteningly consistent absence of women from the prison movie genre is another telling indication of how most genres in existence today have more or less been exclusively created by men so that they have an avenue for exorcising homoerotic fears and repressions.

No genre other than the western has offered writers and directors with the chance of exploring the tensions of what happens when a group of overtly masculine criminals are placed within the confines of a single geographical space and dictated by the institution to become civilized. If Darabont’s emotionally manipulative and sentimental melodrama, ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ turned the genre on it’s head by giving audiences the what they had been craving for over three decades, an escape that is both spiritually uplifting and brilliantly executed. Such is the catharsis when Andy and Red meet on the edge of the ocean, one cannot help but feel that every other prison film before had always been about sustaining a downbeat mood, and that entertaining the notion of escape was merely idealistic wish fulfilment in a system geared to maintaining the status quo, ensuring nihilism became a dominant ideological value embraced by all those who have transgressed against normal society.

Such is the case with Jacques Becker’s last film as a director in 1960, ‘Le Trou’, a classic prison movie that opts for long takes and naturalistic sound to give an account of a true story in which the loyalties of a group of likable prisoners are placed under intense scrutiny when they decide to dig a tunnel underneath the prison with the hope of escaping to freedom. Of course, this being a prison movie, and quite a conventional one in terms of narrative, a final escape alludes all those involved including the one who is adamant of staying behind. What makes this an outstanding example of genre filmmaking is Becker’s glaring emphasis on the intricacy and details of the escape plan, creating a genuinely convincing atmosphere of ambiguity between the prisoners, and showing us the painstaking lengths which they must go to so they can ensure their safe escape.

Less a statement about prison life, and more a commentary on trying to get behind the individual mentality of what motivates people to betray the loyalty of those around them, ‘Le Trou’, offers little in terms of an explanation for what transpires so painfully at the end of the film as Becker chooses to frustrate our emotions by denying us any kind of contrived Hollywood moment between the prisoner and the sympathetic warden. Gripping cinema from start to finish and made altogether more special for Criterion’s faithful and caring release of the film on DVD.

THE FURIES (Dir. Anthony Mann, 1950, US) - Resurrecting Forgotten American Cinema


The people at Criterion have done a splendid job in resurrecting this film from the ashes of forgotten American cinema, continuing their unrivalled reputation for DVD releases. Released in the 50s, Anthony Mann’s Freudian noir western, ‘The Furies’ was a precursor to the psychological approach Mann would increasingly apply later to the cycle of revisionist westerns starring James Stewart like ‘The Naked Spur’. Much of Mann’s early work has been somewhat unfairly overshadowed by his later road show epics like ‘El Cid’ and ‘The Fall of the Roman Empire’, but however much he was a brilliant manipulator of the widescreen composition, it is the low budget noirs in particular that he shot quickly that have really thrown a fresh light on a filmmaker who probably is one of the greatest American filmmakers to have worked in the studio system.

Mann’s body of work is rich, highly intelligent and has not dated in the slightest, and his repeated film noir collaborations with the master of light, John Alton, stand out as some of the best finest examples of the aesthetic possibilities of the noir genre. Films like ‘Raw Deal’ and ‘T-Men’ are masterpieces of economy, reinventing film language by revealing how low budgets and studio constraints could be subverted to deal with real social dilemmas by creating an entirely new set of codes and conventions. If one was to study any of the noirs Mann made before he shifted into the western genre, it is quite apparent how he had perfected the art of telling a story simply through the arrangement and positioning of the mise en scene, foregrounding the potential of the frame as a primal means of communicating with the audience spectator.

Unlike today, one of the benefits of working within a regimented system like the Hollywood studios was the ability to continue working on a number of different film projects, constantly developing and refining a particular specialism until one become somewhat of a skilled craftsman. Directors under contract regularly moved from one project to another with great confidence and dismay but they evolved rapidly into great artists, and such was the case with Anthony Mann who conquered each genre he ventured into. ‘The Furies’ was made in 1950, the same year as ‘Winchester 73’, Mann’s first of many collaborations with James Stewart, and though both films today are labelled as Freudian westerns, they collectively share a preoccupation with psychological themes that repeatedly provide the emotional thrust of the narrative.

‘The Furies’ sits alongside another 50s western melodrama, ‘Johnny Guitar’, that also approaches a traditionally male genre through a feminist perspective, challenging audience expectations by combining melodrama with western elements and shot in a bleakly noirish visual style. Famous for playing the twisted femme fatale in Billy Wilder’s classic noir, ‘Double Indemnity’, Barbara Stanwyck had a feisty reputation and she was one of the few stars to use her sexuality as a potent performance tool to subdue her male co-stars, all of whom were no match for her dynamic, bold and fiercely independent personality.

‘The Furies’ is a complex tale of a father and daughter relationship that is represented as a form of neurotic emotional attachment which is both fatalistic and sentimental. Walter Huston plays T.C Jeffords, a cattle baron and landowner, who has created an empire in the new American west with sheer will power and enterprise. T.C. presides over his empire in his ranch, ‘The Furies’, with great moral authority, impunity and indescribable prejudice against those who stand in his path of protecting his wealth and power. ‘The Furies’ is very much a western about one woman, Vance Jeffords (Barbara Stanwyck) trying to find a place within an emerging American society that was overtly patriarchal and capitalist in its attitudes.

One of the more intriguing aspects of her character is the unrequited relationship that she has with a Mexican cowboy, Juan Herrera, whom T.C hangs in revenge for Vance’s enraged disfiguring of her new soon to be step mother. Though the sexual nature of this interracial relationship between Vance and Juan is only ever hinted at, it is quite obvious from the symbolism of the bread that the two ritually share with one another each time they meet, that women in this new vision of America were perhaps much more outward looking and progressive in their ideological attitudes. Vance’s destruction of the patriarchal figure of her father, T.C, is never taken its natural conclusion at the end, as Mann feels compelled to redeem the figure of T.C and let his death become a matter of embittered revenge.

Beautifully shot, well acted and a worthy addition to the western genre, ‘The Furies’ is a film that suggests superior film making was possible even in the most difficult of circumstances, using minimum resources to create cinema with a distinctly visual eye for landscapes.

9 July 2008

THE HAPPENING (Dir. M Night Shyamalan, 2008, US/India) - What ever happened to M Night Shyamalan?

To be labelled a boy genius early in your film career in Hollywood can be both rewarding and a curse especially if you are mentioned in the same breath as commercially successful filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and Alfred Hitchcock. With the failure of ‘Lady in the Water’, what many had suggested was a popular media backlash against Shyamalan has proven to be totally false when you consider how his most recent film, ‘The Happening’, in no way stands up to the originality and brilliance of his first few perfectly judged mainstream films. ‘The Happening’ is a haplessly misconceived piece of cinema, failing disastrously to generate any kind of sympathy whatsoever for the main protagonists, and sadly joining the company of ‘Lady in the Water’, another poorly executed and misjudged Shyamalan film. On reflection, ‘Lady in the Water’ is a much better film when compared to ‘The Happening’, a film that seems confused about what it is trying to say about contemporary western society even if it is an eco friendly message that is better witnessed in a trashy 50s science fiction film.

In 1999, Shyamalan made a real splash with the audaciously clever Bruce Willis psychological thriller, ‘The Sixth Sense’, achieving with great immediacy international recognition for an intelligently constructed mainstream genre film that showed little contempt for an audience which helped to make the film into one of the highest grossing films of all time, and perhaps the greatest ‘sleeper hit’ of all time. Unlike most film makers, Shyamalan was able to quickly prove that ‘The Sixth Sense’ was not merely a one off, and ‘Unbreakable’, his take on the comic book/superhero narrative was widely well received by many critics confirming his convincing talents as a superior Hollywood filmmaker. His third film, ‘Signs’, a supernatural science fiction hybrid, this time starring Mel Gibson, gave Shyamalan his third hit film in a row, and cementing his position as one of Hollywood’s most exciting, inventive and genuinely creative auteurs. ‘Signs’ was a much bigger success story at the box office than ‘Unbreakable’, and provided Mel Gibson with the biggest hit of his career, grossing in excess of $400 million worldwide.

Like Spielberg with whom he has always unfairly compared, Shyamalan shares a considerate and economical approach to Hollywood filmmaking by repeatedly bringing his films under budget, adhering to a storyboard structure, and most importantly, knowing how and at which point in the narrative to manipulate the spectator’s emotional response. The awe and wonder of cinema as a spectacle is an aspect of filmmaking that continues to fascinate directors like Shyamalan who revels in the notion of borrowing elements and techniques from Hollywood cinema. Though you could say that much of Hollywood cinema is deeply sentimental in many respects, Shyamalan’s films are shot with a minimalism and stillness that is identifiable in the work of European film auteurs than Hollywood directors. Undeniably talented, Shyamalan is a rarity when compared to filmmakers like Spielberg, Scorsese and Ridley Scott because he not only directs, he produces and writes his own films, a burden that not many filmmakers want to take on today in fear of having to accept complete responsibility when a film fails critically and commercially, which was the case with ‘Lady in the Water’. Many critics have suggested that Shyamalan should find a suitable co-writer but such a suggestion seems baffling when you consider that Shyamalan’s great strength and uniqueness as a filmmaker comes from his ability to be a complete and total artist.

After ‘Signs’, came ‘The Village, another psychological thriller, but this time critics were split in their reaction towards the film, with many criticising the poorly conceived premise and though the film did well at the box office, it was the first time that Shyamalan had made a movie without a major A list Hollywood star, and it was also the first time Disney felt disappointed with the final box office takings. The young magician and wonder kid had finally fallen from his perch, and though he was still one of the most bankable filmmakers in Hollywood, Shyamalan’s invincibility had finally passed, almost creating the necessary conditions in which film critics would flourish to wreck the commercial prospects of his pet project, ‘Lady in the Water’, a dark underrated adult fairytale.

His most recent venture, ‘The Happening’, is a co-production between UTV Motion Pictures (a powerful Bollywood film studio) and 20th Century Fox. ’The Happening’ has currently grossed $135 million worldwide, and when measured against the incredible success of his first four films, ‘The Happening’ has clearly underperformed at the box office, perhaps indicating how the film’s poor critical reception has affected the commercial possibilities of what should have been a potential blockbuster. Mark Whalberg’s range as an actor is somewhat limited and though he has got better as a performer, he still finds it difficult convincing audiences of his ordinariness, a quality that Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson are able to exude in abundance and with great assurance, something severely lacking in the bemused and unemotional face of Mr Whalberg who has been miscast in the film. The casting problems don’t stop quiet their as John Leguizamo’s presence in the film seems like a complete mystery to everybody involved. It is as if he has been digitally edited into the film’s opening act, playing a character that is sorely underwritten and serving no real purpose other than to annoy us with his strangely shaped spectacles and inarticulate mumblings.

The obvious 9-11 context with Shyamalan opening the film with an extended and intriguing sequence in New York is well handled and shows great promise, but once the city begins evacuation, the narrative loses focus and never allows room for characters to develop. Shyamalan is more concerned with getting quickly to the next suspense based sequence and this means having to sacrifice character and theme for temporary moments of melodrama. This is an ‘end of days’ film with an apocalyptic vein running throughout but it goes over ground that has already been covered countless times by recent Hollywood films like ‘Cloverfield’ and ‘War of the Worlds’. The theme of humanity destroying the environment, and nature retaliating with chilling mechanism of self-defence is hugely topical and the environmentalist ideology is redundant in a film with a meandering narrative.

Shyamalan has not worked with a major Hollywood film star since ‘Signs’, and if he needs to consolidate his commercial reputation as a filmmaker then his next step must surely be to secure the bankability of a contemporary star like Tom Hanks, Will Smith or perhaps even Bruce Willis. Shyamalan has only made six films, and it would be absurd and dangerous to write him off as a filmmaker as he as yet to produce his best work. Then again, five out of six hit films is not bad for a filmmaker who is still in his mid thirties.

7 July 2008

IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (Dir. Norman Jewison, 1967, US) - An indispensable historical and cultural document of sixties Americana


‘You take care. You here?’ Gillespie (Rod Steiger)
‘Yeah’ –
Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier)

After nearly forty years, the key element that really has stood the test of time in this historically seminal film is the performances by ‘Rod Steiger’ and ‘Sidney Poitier’. Unlike many of the Hollywood mainstream films produced by the new wave in 70s that have had a uniformly influential affect on contemporary film makers and American cinema, 1960s cinema has not fared too well. Many left wing liberal classics like ‘The Graduate’ and ‘In the Heat of the Night’ that were well observed reactionary films, responding to historical change in 60s America have largely lost their original emotional and social impact because the attitudes towards race, violence and sex has changed considerably.

The issue of ‘race’ has been a contentious one in American cinema especially when we consider how unfairly and negatively the African American community and its people have been represented in Hollywood films since D W Griffith’s notoriously romanticised the Klu Klux Klan at the turn of the century in the milestone that is ‘Birth of a Nation’. It was arguably Sidney Poitier who was able to challenge the racial stereotypes that had long been associated with the representation of African American’s in Hollywood cinema by finally offering the possibility of a black cinema.

Sidney Poitier was regularly referred to as the whipping boy, a star and performer who faced criticism from both his own people and the wider white working class American society. Black politicians and leaders criticised Poitier for taking roles that did little to further the political and social cause of the civil rights movement, and his relative silence in stark comparison to Harry Belafonte’s outspoken political values seemed to suggest Poitier was fearful of hurting his film career and position at the box office that was on the ascendancy. Though this maybe true to a certain extent, Poitier was a film star who was very much in demand and had commercial bankability, as he was part of a handful of stars in the sixties who could still more or less guarantee a box office hit. With ‘In the Heat of the Night’ Poitier redeemed himself in the eyes of the his black militant friends and was finally able to play a role that was not underwritten, but confrontational and radically oppositional in how it represented the figure of the new black man.

Unlike Poitier’s commercial appeal, Steiger had struggled to make a career in Hollywood, and though he had already achieved great acclaim for his work in films like ‘On the Waterfront’, his disillusionment with trying to make films that held a larger creative truth alluded him and he fled to Europe where he collaborated with Italian directors like Ermanno Olmi and Francesco Rosi. Steiger had returned to American shores with his intense and searing character study of a Holocaust survivor in Lumet’s ‘The Pawnbroker’ (1966), a film that got him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Many claimed that ‘The Pawnbroker’ was Steiger’s best work to date but he was surprisingly beaten out by Lee Marvin’s comic turn in ‘Cat Ballou’ for the Oscar. On reflection, the Academy got this one badly wrong as many continue to feel that ‘The Pawnbroker’ is one of the great method performances and that Steiger was overlooked purely because his films did not make money at the box office. When ‘In The heat of the night’ was released in 1967, it confirmed what many already knew about the versatility and range of an actor like Steiger and he was rewarded with the Oscar for Best Actor whilst Poitier enjoyed the pleasure of becoming the No 1 US box office star with three hit films in one year including ‘In the Heat of the Night’, a feat that not even Will Smith or Eddie Murphy have been able to achieve.

The character of Mr Tibbs was a role that Poitier had been waiting for all his life as it finally presented him with the opportunity to silence his critics and also put an end to the never ending cycle of crudely underwritten roles given to African American actors working within the Hollywood studio system, and for that reason alone was the film able to secure it’s place firmly in film history. Mr Tibbs, a homicide detective who works in the city of Philadelphia, was certainly a radical departure as the character was a symbolic expression of the intellectual, articulate and professional voice of civil rights leaders like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Suddenly, Poitier, the black star and Tibbs, the black professional seemed to blur into one another, adding a genuine truth to the reality of change that was being referenced on screen. Even if in the eyes of black militants, this was just another film made by a bunch of white guys, they could do little to stop the cultural impact the film would have upon the image and identity of the new Black man that had risen out of the 60s, one that was resourceful, educated, empowered, financially independent, sympathetic and fiercely political in his attitudes towards society. Not only is Virgil Tibbs a much superior police detective, he seems to have a better grasp of interpersonal communication and knows how to empathise with low life criminals.

Steiger’s portrayal of Sheriff Bill Gillespie is played out with such ambiguity concerning his relationship with Tibbs that in moments of crisis and conflict, Sheriff Gillespie begins to question his own prejudices and subsequently grows to learn the need for tolerance, a characteristic that he has repressed in fear of being branded a liberal. Steiger seems to have got the harder job playing a bigot and excels in many of the scenes, eclipsing Poitier as a performer. Jewison was ingenious to disguise the actual racial politics of the film by inventing a murder mystery plot line that becomes redundant very quickly and the final twist at the end is both obvious and engineered primarily to sustain interest in a narrative concerned with fears and anxieties generated by the arrival of ‘the other’.

One of the most politically and emotionally powerful scenes occurs when Virgil Tibbs (Poitier) and Sheriff Gillespie (Steiger) confront Endicott (Larry Gates), an aging patriarch and plantation owner who represents the ideology of a vicious kind of conservatism and supremacy that was being challenged in all the middle class sections of American society. Upon being accused of murdering Colbert by Tibbs, Endicott slaps him but he never expects Tibbs to slap him back which he does, and with an anger that seems to encapsulate a history of discrimination and persecution towards black people. A bemused Endicott replies with, ‘There was a time...when I could have had you shot’, turning to look off screen as if he had just awakened to the reality of racial integration and emancipation. This moment sums up everything about racial politics in the sixties and suddenly it becomes quite easy to see how today such a film has become much more than just cinema, it has become an indispensable historical and cultural document of a time of great change.

5 July 2008

THE CHASER (Dir. Hong-jin Na, 2008, South Korea) - A killer, a pimp and his girl

In 2007, South Korean cinema experienced a crisis of confidence, with audiences losing faith and perhaps interest in the creative surge heralded by the new wave of filmmakers. Over 60% of the films that dominated the Korean domestic top ten originated from Hollywood, and the indigenous home grown talent that had emerged out of the new wave cinema suddenly and unexpectedly seemed to peak, leaving the door open for high concept blockbusters like ‘The Transformers’ movie to come in and clean up, capturing the attention of a film market heavily dominated by a western influenced youth audience. One only had to study the domestic box office figures for the top ten grossing films released domestically in South Korea to notice how successfully indigenous films were able to resist the hegemony of Hollywood.

One of the explanations for South Korea’s recent success with home grown films has been the implementation of a quota system, a strategy that has supported and promoted filmmakers by ensuring that a certain number of films are distributed and exhibited domestically. French cinema continues to utilise the quota system and though Britain does very little in terms of creating useful government initiatives to help with finding financing for filmmakers trying to break through into an insular industry, it still somehow manages to produce a handful of culturally relevant and internationally acclaimed films.

Currently, ‘The Chaser’ is the highest grossing film of 2008, and when it was released in February, it made a real impact on the box office, becoming an instant runaway hit. ‘The Chaser’ is not due here until September but it has already won a number of awards, and is another in a long line of startling and original debut features from Korean filmmakers who have been brought up on Hollywood genres.

Written and directed by Hong-jin Na, the film is an atmospheric contemporary neo noir set in the city of Seoul, shot mostly at night and featuring a macabre narrative that involves a serial killer and the unusually sympathetic character of a cop turned pimp. Based upon a true story, a series of call girls, all owned by the morbid pimp, Joong-ho (Yun-seok Kim) begin to go missing. Joong-ho suspects somebody has been kidnapping his girls and selling them on to other competitors but his inquiries leads him to a much darker underworld, in which a notorious and prolific serial killer has been terrorising the city.

Admittedly, many aspects of the film are formulaic and tied closely to the serial killer genre, but what makes this a distinctly effective slice of mainstream Korean cinema, is the unusually light hearted characterisation of a pimp who comes across as the only sane person in the entire society being depicted. Not only are the police shown to be ineffective in catching the serial killer, they are also consumed by the obligations of protecting the integrity of the local Mayor at the expense of enforcing law and order. The conventional nature of the film manifests it most visibly in the representation of the serial killer who is slowly revealed to be the predictable psychotic loon with a raft of sexual inadequacies and a grizzly fascination for making his victims suffer before he buries them in the backyard.

For a first time director, Hong-jin Na, performs brilliantly in creating and sustaining dramatic tension, and the final climax is confidently handled, achieving an unusually powerful emotional impact that is both draining and gruelling to watch. ‘Memories of Murder’, ‘A Tale of Two Sisters’, ‘Oldboy’ are just a few of the films to have emerged out of the Korean new wave, and which are all now considered to be contemporary classics. Though ‘The Chaser’ falls short of joining such company, it is superior genre mainstream film making and should be welcomed for helping to reinvigorate the commercial prospects for indigenous Korean cinema.

4 July 2008

STOP-LOSS (Dir. Kimberly Peirce, 2008, US) - Apolitical Filmmaking

When an American soldier has completed his tour of duty and is about to be discharged, the US military has the authorisation to stop a soldier from leaving by invoking the clause of ‘stop-loss’. This is what befalls the character of Brandon King (Ryan Philippe), a Texas born yahoo, who is ordered by the US government to go back to Iraq and continue fighting. When King confronts his seniors about such an unfair policy, he is ordered to show some obedience and continue being a good role model for the rest of the troops. However, having just completed five years in Iraq, King goes AWOL and begins to question the hypocritical nature of the military, and quickly faces the decision whether he should go back and fight or become a fugitive, an exile, and become a symbol of resistance.

Initially, I really was persuaded by Kimberly Peirce’s angry and courageous filmmaking and to a large extent she really did have me convinced that she was going to go out on a limb and give us an ending that many of us had been waiting for a long time, one in which the American soldier finally becomes politicised by what he has encountered throughout his journey across America and learns to resist. Unfortunately, I was simply horrified by an ending that is a painful compromise, striking a false and deeply consensual note. The last five minutes of this film seems to undo all the ‘liberal’ questioning that goes on between King and his traumatised war buddies. The final image of King going off to war again suggests that though Kimberly Peirce may not subscribe to the dominant point of view, the ending of an American soldier crossing the border into Canada and transforming into a radical is somewhat idealistic and pretentious, and perhaps something a mainstream Hollywood film might do if it was being directed by a veteran like Clint Eastwood or Warren Beatty.

Still this is a film that is braver and angrier than most films that have also dealt with the war in Iraq, using the road movie aspects of the narrative to confront some of the psychological and physical trauma inflicted upon ordinary American soldiers who have most definitely been left behind by a government that has used the poor, disenfranchised kids of the American ghettos to fight an utterly bankrupt war. One of the major flaws with this film is that the anger manifested in King’s character is never fully explored, and it would have been a far more challenging and daring film had Pierce chosen to increasingly politicise King as the narrative progressed, but no such transformation occurs, mainly because no filmmaker today especially in a post 9-11 context wants to clearly state their ideological attitudes in fear of being labelled a crazy, sentimental, left wing liberal.

Kimberly Peirce seems to come undone in the last act and the fist-fight between King and his enraged war buddy is both contrived and cliqued, having become an over used and redundant convention of the Hollywood war genre. If the ending had been daring and bold which it should have been, then this could have been an important and courageous film rather than just another apolitical film that merely pays lip service when it comes to asking the real questions about an unjust and illegal war.

Unlike Peirce’s previous acclaimed film, ‘Boys Don’t Cry’, a fiercely independent film that was made largely without any kind of studio interference, the same cannot be said for ‘Stop-Loss’, Peirce’s first studio film (Paramount) and a film with a $25 million budget that involved location shooting in Morocco. Perhaps this once again is another reminder of the artistic and ideological compromise that filmmakers are forced to make when working under radically different circumstances and commercial pressures. Obviously, in this instance, Peirce lost, and the studio won, determining an ending that feels like an act of self-censorship.

1 July 2008

The Films of Martin Scorsese

In 2007, when arguably the greatest living American film maker Martin Scorsese finally accepted the Oscar for directing the middle of the road crime epic, ‘The Departed’, many felt it was a moment that not only should have happened a long time ago but many times over. ‘The Departed’, a remake of the classic cat and mouse Hong Kong thriller, ‘Infernal Affairs’, was widely praised as a return to form but some like myself felt this was Scorsese pleasing the audiences and studio by doing what he does best; examining under a microscope what makes enclosed male communities so violent and fatalistic. Scorsese’s Oscar seemed almost like an apology from the Hollywood community who had repeatedly sought to overlook his contribution to American cinema by choosing to celebrate matinee movie idols turned film makers; Robert Redford and Kevin Costner come to mind.

‘The Departed’ like much of the work Scorsese has produced since 2000 has been disappointing for his inability to break free of the techniques and kind of storytelling he brilliantly helped to establish with his 1990 gangster masterpiece, ‘Goodfellas’, a film that is perhaps the seminal Scorsese film in terms the influence it had on the new wave of Hollywood film makers like Spike Lee, David Fincher and Paul Thomas Andersen. Personally, for me, his last great film was ‘Kundun’ (1995), a beautifully poetic insight into an alien culture and depiction of the Dalia Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader and an international icon of peace. The refreshing aspect of ‘Kundun’ was that everything about the film starting with the subject matter was so untypical of Scorsese as a filmmaker who rarely ventured outside the urban sphere of working class districts. Accompanied by a breathtaking score by Philip Glass and shot perfectly by ace cinematographer Roger Deakins, ‘Kundun’ is an extraordinarily cathartic film that builds towards a tremendously moving finale depicting the escape of the Dalia Lama. The same cannot be said for ‘The Departed’, a film that revisits material familiar to Scorsese but fails to do anything different other than being just another crime/gangster genre film that enjoys working through the many tired conventions.

Everybody has a favourite Scorsese film and out of all the films he has directed, ‘Taxi Driver’ is the one film that has become a real audience and critics favourite, regularly appearing in many lists, polls and canons. ‘Taxi Driver’ is a true modern American classic and is one of the few genuinely disturbing and powerful pieces of cinema to have come out of the tumultuous 70’s era. The body of work Scorsese produced in the 1980s is just as adventurous and daring as his early work, but after ‘Goodfellas’, Scorsese seemed to go into auto pilot mode, making flawed films such as ‘Casino’, ‘Cape Fear’ and ‘Bringing out the Dead’.

Many critics have argued that a filmmaker like Martin Scorsese is simply making the same film over and over again. Though this maybe a crude generalisation, it does seem to offer a valid explanation about his status as an auteur, a position that surely must be reassessed considering his long term collaboration with the editor, Thelma Schoonmaker. Whatever Scorsese does today will always be judged against the greatness of his early work in the 1970s, and if this a negative experience, it perhaps provides irrefutable evidence of his evolution as a filmmaker.

What follows next are a list of my 10 favourite Scorsese movies. It was too difficult to put them into some kind of rank order.


1.
Taxi Driver, 1976

Many say this is the best film Scorsese ever directed, and though I would agree with such a bold statement, the emotional power of this film comes directly out of the 70’s social and political malaise that was widespread in mainstream American society. Bickle was Schrader, and his rage and violence was undoubtedly a physical manifestation of a nation at war with itself. A masterpiece.

2.
Raging Bull, 1980

Stallone’s triumph with ‘Rocky’ in 1977 was enough to give birth to the boxing genre, and though many would say ‘Rocky’ is probably the most entertaining and definitive boxing movie, ‘Raging Bull’, Scorsese’s first film of the 80s is still considered by some critics today to be the best American feature film to have emerged out of the entire decade. Characterised by virtuoso tracking shots and trademark Schoonmaker editing techniques like balletic slow motion, Raging Bull is a film about male identity, sexuality and redemption that is directed with an tangible nod to the great neo realist Italian masters like De Sica and Rossellini. This is a film like the best of Scorsese that transcends genre limitations and becomes much more than just cinema. Compelling.

3. After Hours, 1985


A personal favourite, ‘After Hours’ is the closest Scorsese has ever come to directing an out and out comedy. Shot entirely at night, the narrative follows a lonely desk clerk, Paul Hackett, played superbly by Griffin Dunne, who takes a nightmarish journey through downtown Manhattan simply to get back home. This is Scorsese’s ode to Hitchcock and he liberally references films like ‘Marnie’ and ‘Vertigo’ with great assurance. Terribly underrated and often pushed to one side, ‘After Hours’ was made quickly, shot on a low budget and based on an offbeat script written by a film student. Wickedly inventive in its use of New York locations, ‘After Hours’ is not simply a minor film as many would like to categorise it as, but also brilliant cinema.

4. Mean Streets, 1973


The opening of Scorsese’s breakthrough feature film, ‘Mean Streets’ is unforgettable for its use of music, a stylistic technique that would come to define the rest of his work, and provide a future inspiration for Quentin Tarantino and his colourful use of the soundtrack. Influenced by the improvised, realist style of Cassavetes, Mean Streets was the turning point for Scorsese, and though the film has dated in some aspects, it is supported by superlative performances from De Niro and Kietel and boosted by an authentic study of small time criminals that is both personal and cinematic.

5. Goodfellas, 1990


Scorsese reinvented himself with the visceral gangster epic, ‘Goodfellas’, and at the same time rewrote the language of American cinema, creating an entirely new lexicon of film techniques from the whip pan to tracking shots, producing one of the most fast paced and intoxicating narratives ever seen. Scorsese draws upon his love of American film genres and masters like John Ford to paint a deeply powerful indictment of gangster life and hypocrisy. Impressive, ambitious and daring – this is Scorsese at his best with a potent final image of Joe Pesci reminding us of the startling, primitive nature of early cinema.

6. Kundun, 1995


Paul Schrader’s stunning film about the Japanese writer, ‘Mishima’, was a flawed project on East Asian culture, and his collaboration with the minimalist composer, Philip Glass, undoubtedly left a lasting impression on Scorsese who extracted from him a tremendously operatic score that elevates the story of the Dalai Lama to a spiritual plane. ‘Kundun’ is a very spiritual film and proved that Scorsese could confidently work in any genre. A commercial failure at the box office but a real triumph in terms of realising the epic spectacles of the Hollywood golden age.

7. The King of Comedy, 1983


Scorsese’s telling and biting satire on the media, celebrity, fame and loneliness was a film ahead of its time, and features one of De Niro’s darkest and most complex performances as the eccentric and unhinged lonely comedian, Rupert Pupkin, who goes to insane lengths to pursue his obsession with fame and recognition. Intelligently directed by Scorsese, ‘The King of Comedy’ extended his fascination with lonely outsiders who exist on the margins of working class society.

8. The Age of Innocence, 1993


Scorsese’s foray into the period drama was a real achievement in terms of capturing the intricacies and details of New York’s upper class at the turn of the century. An emotionally involving story about unrequited love that is defined by towering contributions from Daniel Day Lewis and Michelle Pefiffer, ‘The Age of Innocence’, is a homage to the bittersweet cinema of Max Ophuls.

9. New York, New York, 1977

A spectacular failure upon it’s release, ‘New York, New York’, was a big budget tribute to the musicals produced by MGM, and was significantly re edited to meet commercial demands. The film has been restored to its original directors cut and though it still has problems with pacing, it presents us with familiar thematic preoccupations like male violence, sexuality, and guilt. An excellent example of genre filmmaking.

10. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, 1974

Before Scorsese achieved international success with ‘Taxi Driver’, he was offered the chance to direct a melodrama starring Ellen Burstyn who had just shot to fame with ‘The Exorcist’, and he apparently took the job purely to disprove the notion that male directors had difficulty directing female leads. Ellen Burstyn would go on to win the Oscar for best actress and Scorsese had finally entered the mainstream of American cinema.