Films I loved in January 2014

2 February 2014

A belated Happy New Year!

I just wanted to leave this note to announce that I will not recommence writing weekly long form film reviews for Cinema Autopsy – not for a while anyway. However, I will provide links to some of the other stuff I’m doing and when possible I will upload any pieces that have previously only existed in print, including any short capsule reviews of new release films and DVDs.

Instead, for this year at least, I will mainly use Cinema Autopsy to do monthly summaries of what I’ve been watching and can recommend. Rather than writing formal reviews, I’ll provide some more casual commentary on what I’ve been excited about most recently.

Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis in Inside Llewyn Davis

Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis in Inside Llewyn Davis

January 2014 has been an astonishingly good month for Australian cinemagoers as we caught up on many of the incredible films that were released in the northern hemisphere at the end of last year.

Leading the pack for me is the latest by Joel and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis, about a down-and-out folk singer trying to get by in New York in the early 1960s. I love the film’s melancholic settings and cinematography, the gorgeous soundtrack, the clever narrative structure with its strange mirroring scenes and surprise flashforward, and all the excellent performances; most of all Oscar Isaac who communicates so much about what he is thinking and feeling while singing or in silence. I love that so many moments are simultaneously heartbreaking and hilarious.

Mostly, I love how sincere the film is and that it is about somebody with an amazing talent who does not succeed. Too often Hollywood cinema tells us that having a dream, being true to ourselves and working really hard will lead to success and happiness, but that isn’t true and Inside Llewyn Davis provides a welcome respite to that myth and suggests that luck also plays a part. After Barton Fink from 1991 – also about a frustrated and doomed creative person – this is my favourite film by the Coens.

Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombly in Her

Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombly in Her

Her was a huge surprise for me, as while I’ve enjoyed all of Spike Jonze’s films on varying levels, the premise of a man falling in love with his computer operating system left me feeling a bit sceptical. So I was somewhat taken aback by how thoughtful and moving Her was and the extent in which it deviated away from how I imagined it to be. It’s a film of fascinating contradictions – the depiction of the very plausible not-too-distant future is both beautiful and warm, but also sterile and vacuous. This of course reflects the themes of the film where social media and technology has brought people closer together than ever before, but we are now more detached than ever from those immediately around us.

Her asks more questions than it answers and is the better film for it. For example, so what if we derive happiness from something artificial? Who are any of us to judge how somebody else finds joy and companionship? And the next thing you know the film is pondering the age-old philosophical question of what it means to be real and what reality exists beyond the material world.

Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave

Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave

The feature films of video artist Steve McQueen are characterised for their formal structure and style, their focus on suffering and their striking juxtaposition of beauty and ugliness. McQueen’s adaption of the 1853 memoir 12 Years a Slave is no different, although it is the most traditionally narrative driven of McQueen’s films. It is a bold film about Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free African-American man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. McQueen ensures the audience feel the injustice and brutality of slavery without turning the horrors into a grotesque spectacle. This is a film of integrity and restraint where McQueen is extremely careful about when to show something in close-up and how long for.

Watching 12 Years a Slave is not an ordeal or something that I felt obliged to do, and yet as the credits rolled and I left the cinema I felt the enormity of what I had experience crash down upon me. It’s difficult to describe this as a film I enjoyed, but I did ‘enjoy’ having that surge of emotion that compelled me to stop and appreciate what the film had presented. And I certainly took pleasure from the craftsmanship displayed by McQueen and all the other filmmakers involved. The lingering close-up of lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor where he momentarily looks at the audience is something I haven’t been able to shake off.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street

The final film that I really loved in January is Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, which does make a spectacle out of the horrors the real-life stockbroker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) indulges in. Like the violence of previous Scorsese films, the grotesque hedonism, misogyny, shameless exploitation and psychotic bullying of the stockbroker world are delivered as vicarious thrills for the increasingly bewildered audience.

The Wolf of Wall Street is frequently hilarious, and DiCaprio’s comedic skills in key scenes are a revelation, but I found myself laughing at The Wolf of Wall Street in the way many of us laugh at the violence and gore in horror films – it’s a shocked response to the over-the-top nature of what is onscreen. The Wolf of Wall Street is at its core another Scorsese gangster film depicting the rise, triumph and then whimpering fade of a thug – it’s just this time the thug wears a white collar, is part of a supposedly legitimate system and ruined far more lives.


Otherwise, I also really liked James Erskine’s documentary The Battle of the Sexes about the significance of the 1973 novelty tennis match between the current female champion Billie Jean King and the retired men’s champion Bobby Riggs, a self described ‘male chauvinist pig’. Erskine very successfully puts the match into the context of the feminist moment to demonstrate that while it was a silly media stunt for Riggs, it had big ramifications for the status of women’s sport.

I enjoyed Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza) on a purely sensory level. However, I’m a bit uncertain to what extent the film shares the views of its aging socialite lead character who spends most of the film reflecting on his life while strolling around Rome. Fortunately the film seems to deliberately undermine his dismissal of modern art forms and modes of artistic expression, but it does then seem to endorse his rather regressive view of women. Nevertheless, I was able to lose myself in the gorgeous visuals and sound design, even though I suspect it’s all a bit empty.

Finally, Laurent Cantet’s Foxfire got released on DVD and Blu-ray in Australia early in the year, bypassing a full theatrical release. It’s a 1950s period film about a gang of teenage girls who fight back against the various humiliations, condescension and violence they have experienced from the men who live in the small town they are from in upstate New York. A terrific cast of mostly unknown young actors explore how the line between revolution and criminality can be blurred in this coming-of-age/gangster film.

Thomas Caldwell 2014
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The Movie Man: Martin Scorsese

4 February 2012

Martin Scorsese

There are few filmmakers who rival Martin Scorsese’s contribution to cinema. The 69-year-old New Yorker is part of the passionate and highly film-literate moviemakers (including Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg) that started their careers in the 1970s during the New Hollywood era. These directors created the modern blockbuster and came to define American cinema.

Whether making gangster films, period films or biopics, Scorsese explores aspects of masculinity, identity and violence. His protagonists are often loners in a chaotic world trying to make sense of the madness around them, grappling with issues of guilt, penance and spiritual enlightenment. Nostalgia plays a big part in Scorsese’s films, but so do regret and loss. Many of his films end ambiguously, with a sense of irony or with the main character on the decline. Frequently working with the same crew, including editor Thelma Schoonmaker on almost every film, and the same actors (such as Robert De Niro and, more recently, Leonardo DiCaprio), Scorsese is one of the few American auteurs, as his films can be regarded as a personal expression of his author-like direction.

Many of Scorsese’s early films reflected his childhood as the son of Catholic Italian immigrants living in New York. While attending film school in the 1960s he made a handful of short films before making his first feature, Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967). It starred his then-preferred leading actor, Harvey Keitel, as a typically Scorsesesque troubled man. The film contained some hallmarks of his later films with its focus on Italian-American communities, life-on-the-street feel, and a rock soundtrack. Following Boxcar Bertha (1972), which he made with legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman, Scorsese made Mean Streets (1973). This film announced his arrival as a filmmaker of note, and was the first time Scorsese worked with De Niro, capturing the stories, characters and atmosphere of Little Italy in New York City, where Scorsese grew up.

After his under-appreciated Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), a rare Scorsese film with a leading female protagonist (played by Ellen Burstyn), he made his masterpiece. Taxi Driver (1976) featured De Niro as an insomniac Vietnam veteran, Travis Bickle, who descends into violent madness. The film coined the phrase ‘are you talkin’ to me’, inspired the 1981 assassination attempt on US President Ronald Reagan and remains one of the greatest cinematic portrayals of paranoid psychosis. More importantly, Taxi Driver established Scorsese’s favourite techniques of using slow motion and fluid tracking shots to convey the subjective experience of his protagonists.

Reflecting his love of different cinematic movements from all over the world, a Scorsese film will often blend cinema-vérité techniques with the dreamlike imagery of avant-garde films. These elements were stunningly combined in Scorsese’s 1980 biopic, Raging Bull, with De Niro as the turbulent boxer Jake LaMotta. This black-and-white epic portrays masculinity at its most violent, reprehensible, pitiful and tragic. Taxi Driver might be the masterpiece, but Raging Bull is the definitive Scorsese film.

Between Taxi Driver and Raging Bull Scorsese made the homage to Hollywood musicals, New York, New York (1977) and a concert film of The Band, The Last Waltz (1978).

Throughout his career, Scorsese’s love of music is expressed on his soundtracks, which alternate between original scores by composers such as Bernard Herrmann, Philip Glass and Peter Gabriel, and eclectic pop and rock compilations. He also produced the 2003 documentary series, The Blues, and has made documentaries about Bob Dylan (No Direction Home; 2005), the Rolling Stones (Shine a Light; 2008) and most recently George Harrison (Living in the Material World; 2011). He even directed the ‘Bad’ music video for Michael Jackson in 1987.

Scorsese’s 1980s films were slightly left-of-field ventures. And, with the forgettable exception of The Color of Money (1986; a sequel to the Paul Newman classic of 1961, The Hustler), they are fascinating. The King of Comedy (1983) cast De Niro as a struggling comedian trying to get the attention of a famous talk-show host, played by Jerry Lewis. It’s Taxi Driver as a critique of showbiz. After Hours (1985) was a low-budget surreal comedy about a man in New York trying to get home one night. Of most interest was The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), a highly controversial film that depicted what Christ’s life may have been like if he didn’t die on the cross and lived as a mortal man. Despite accusations of blasphemy, the film remains an extraordinary examination of spirituality and faith.

In 1990, Scorsese made the gangster masterpiece Goodfellas. It’s classic Scorsese: violent, focused on the Italian-American mob, ending with a whimper rather than a bang, featuring De Niro among others, and full of iconic music and visual flourishes. Following his 1991 remake of the 1962 thriller Cape Fear, with De Niro playing the vengeful former convict Max Cady, Scorsese made Casino (1995), which functioned as a sort of unofficial but far more violent follow-up to Goodfellas. The final ‘conventional’ Scorsese film of the 1990s was Bringing out the Dead (1999), where he teamed up with writer (and also director) Paul Schrader for the forth and final time after previously collaborating on Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Last Temptation. Dead was an almost black comic retelling of Taxi Driver, this time featuring an exhausted paramedic played by Nicolas Cage.

After Goodfellas, the two standout 1990s films for Scorsese were the less obvious The Age of Innocence (1993) and Kundun (1997). An adaptation of Edith Wharton’s 1920 novel, Innocence did not seem like a typical Scorsese film, but its New York setting and melancholic male protagonist, Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis), were Scorsese hallmarks. Likewise, a film about the 14th Dalai Lama initially seemed an odd choice, but Kundun displayed Scorsese’s command of using film style to convey the experience of a male protagonist in a world he struggles to comprehend. Just as Scorsese’s other religiously themed film, Last Temptation, attracted controversy, so did Kundun – this time from the Chinese Government, which wasn’t pleased about a film depicting the exiled Tibetan leader sympathetically.

The past decade has seen Scorsese repeatedly collaborate with actor Leonardo DiCaprio, starting with the disappointing period crime drama, Gangs of New York (2002). The director–actor partnership with DiCaprio picked up in 2004 with the impressive biopic, The Aviator, about the notoriously reclusive film producer and aviation pioneer, Howard Hughes. In 2010 the pair worked together on Shutter Island, one of Scorsese’s most misunderstood films (the complex, subjective film style used to signal the true nature of DiCaprio’s US Marshal character was mistaken for giving away the ‘twist’ ending, which was in fact not a twist at all).

Scorsese’s 2000s peak came in 2006 with The Departed, a remake of the 2002 Hong Kong crime drama, Infernal Affairs. Once more full of Scorsese’s trademark crime violence and psychopathic male characters, The Departed was a complex film about identity and loyalty. Some audiences were annoyed that Scorsese had remade a recent and much loved Hong Kong film, while others preferred Scorsese’s less melodramatic and more straightforward version. The Departed finally earned Scorsese an Academy Award for Best Director (he had previously been nominated five times).

The importance of what Scorsese has done for cinema cannot be understated. Not only has he made numerous American classics, he has also long campaigned for the need to preserve older films. He has made documentaries about American and Italian cinema, and is endlessly championing films from all over the world. He co-created the Film Foundation in 1990, and the World Cinema Foundation in 2007 (both organisations are dedicated to the preservation and restoration of films).

The man loves cinema, which is what is so beautifully expressed in his latest 3D family film, Hugo (2011). Not only does Hugo celebrate the wonders of films from a previous era, it introduces a whole new generation to the joys of cinema. Unlike his many protagonists, Scorsese is not about to fade into obscurity. Indeed, he is making films that are as remarkable, inspirational and unpredictable as anything else he has done during his extraordinary career.

The Big Issue, issue 398Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 398, 2012

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

Film review – Hugo (2011)

9 January 2012
Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) and Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz)

Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) and Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz)

Martin Scorsese’s passion for cinema has long been evident. His filmography is filled with titles that not only reference cinema of the past, especially Italian and classical Hollywood cinema, but push the development of contemporary cinema. Scorsese’s ability to look lovingly to the past and excitedly toward the future is further exemplified by his work in restoring and preserving older films while continuing to challenge himself artistically. Hugo is a perfect encapsulation of Scorsese the artist, film historian and pioneer – a technologically advanced 3D spectacle celebrating the craft and imagination of early cinema.

The visual splendour throughout Hugo is mostly derived from its 1930s Parisian train station setting. The light and colour of the production design are heightened to create an expressive fairy tale world, which nevertheless remains grounded in a recognisable reality without ever slipping into overt whimsy or Magic Realism. The true visual flourishes occur when the audience are taken behind-the-scenes of the station, into the hidden passages and rooms occupied by the orphaned boy Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield). In these labyrinthine catacombs, Hugo is surrounded by the mechanics of the station clocks he maintains and the automaton he is trying to repair. Echoes of Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece Metropolis can be felt throughout these scenes while the various mini dramas that play out down on the platforms as witnessed by Hugo evoke Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film Rear Window.

It is no accident that Scorsese evokes Metropolis and Rear Window since both films are triumphs of how cinematic space can be explored. Like Metropolis Hugo is a spectacle film filled with special effects and like Rear Window the subplots that are literally in the background of the film blend into the principle story. All three films use the technology of the day to explore the boundaries between private and public spaces, and what happens when those spaces are collapsed. In the case of Hugo the technology of the day is the glorious 3D, which creates the best depth-of-field in a narrative film since Avatar (James Cameron, 2009). Illuminated specks of dust floating in the air feel like they are in front of your eyes and in one notable scene Sacha Baron Cohen, who plays Inspector Gustav, is given a dramatic close-up where it looks like his head will float out of the screen like a giant blimp.

Hugo coming out from his hidden world to befriend Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), a stallholder’s granddaughter, is an important collapsing of private and public spaces in the narrative. While working together to first recover Hugo’s confiscated notebook and then to repair the automaton, the pair discover a piece of at-the-time forgotten film history. While most cinephiles will recognise early in the film what this piece of film history is, seeing it slowly revealed and explained for the benefit of the non-cinephile viewers is extremely rewarding, especially as it is based on a true story. The person at the centre of this story has been long overdue for a biopic, but having their life told in a fictional film with them as a secondary character is something they would have no doubt found delightful. They certainly would have adored the wonder, magic and cinematic craftsmanship behind Hugo.

The two images that resonate most throughout Hugo are the clocks and the automaton. The constant shots of clocks and the sound of the ticking on the soundtrack evoke the period of change and progress between the two World Wars, but also the rush away from the past, which runs the risk of forgetting people, events and artefacts that deserve better recognition. The uncanny figure of the lifelike yet artificial body of the automaton is both a symbol of humanity that has been damaged, fragmented and made expendable by war, but also the hope that technology can be a liberating and hopeful force to create a better world. Both are also reminders that we are living in a time where we receive a constant barrage of information, manufactured images and other sensory stimuli to an extent that even cultural theorist and philosopher Walter Benjamin probably could not have imagined when he was examining modernity and cinema in essays such as his 1936 ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (which would have been a nice alternative title for Hugo). It’s likely that Hugo’s Rear Window-style multi-perceptive narrative, the use of 3D and production design to represent city spaces as ever changing experiences, and the Parisian train station and arcade setting would have thrilled Benjamin.

In Hugo Scorsese not only tells an important story about early cinema, but delivers a film that is a passionate and convincing reminder of the essential role art and imagination should play in our lives. Hugo also pays tribute to the joys of reading, which is fitting considering it is an adaptation of Brian Selznick’s 2007 novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Typical of Scorsese it is a nostalgic film, but also a contemporary one. It contains historical commentary on the devaluing of art in times of economic hardship and the damage that war does to the collective souls of a nation – both timeless themes, but particularly applicable to the current era. The best part is that while film buffs will adore it, it hasn’t been made exclusively for them. The main audience that Hugo is intended for is the new generation of filmgoers who may not yet know of a time when cinema wasn’t frequently in 3D and created with computer generated imagery, let alone a time when cinema was silent and in black and white. Being in a theatre filled with young audience members who were engaged with the film and laughing in delight at the early cinema clips, is the final element to what makes Hugo so special. This family film is perhaps Scorsese’s most significant gift back to the art form that he loves so much.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

MIFF 2011 Blog-a-thon: Part 2

23 July 2011
Three

Three

My very first day of seeing films at the festival began with Three, a light German drama touching on issues of death and disease that ended up being a slightly farcical infidelity story. It was also unfortunate that the print hadn’t arrived as planned so the film was screened off a preview DVD. To the credit of the MIFF staff, this unforeseeable issue was explained to the audience beforehand and refunds were offered so I’ve no complaint with that. In fact, the low resolution, distributor logo in the corner of the screen and occasional bits of text flashing on the screen actually suited the film’s themes of detachment and communication failure. However, after enduring a series of moments when the disc jumped back and forth by several minutes I had to walk out  as that was one unintentional alienation device too many. 

Things picked up considerably when I then saw The King of Comedy, arguably the most underrated Scorsese/De Niro director/actor collaboration. I’d only previously seen this once on VHS so this was a treat. The film brilliantly explores issues of obsession and the nature of celebrity, making it the missing link between Taxi Driver and The Larry Saunders Show. I’d forgotten how funny it is. And what happened to Sandra Bernhard? She’s amazing in this.

Jess + Moss

Jess + Moss

The highlight of my day after The King of Comedy was Jess + Moss where light, colour, a variety of film stocks and a variety of cinematographic techniques are used to create a vivid impression of an adolescent friendship. Funny, sweet and even at times slightly sinister, it explores companionship, memory, loss and the awkwardness of emerging sexual curiosity. Perhaps it is slightly too obtuse to really deliver a full emotional punch, but I nevertheless found this to be a mesmerising and beautiful film. I suspect director Clay Jeter is going to do extraordinary things in the future.

I doubt I’ll see a bigger dud at the festival than The Silence of Joan. This poorly made film is more about various men who feel sorry for Joan of Arc than Joan herself. Not a bad idea I suppose, but she really is silenced in this film and robbed of all character. The cinematography and editing resemble the sort of thing you’d expect from a mediocre TV movie and some of the performances from the supporting cast would not have been out of place in a particularly bad piece of community theatre.

Melancholia

Melancholia

I wanted to like Melancholia more than I did, but it is still an immensely rewarding film. After a truly remarkable prologue, where the main story is basically told in a series of stunning abstract images, the first part of the film delivers an extremely impressive depiction of somebody who suffers from depression. Kirsten Dunst is remarkable as Justine who is supposed to be having the time of her life on her wedding night, but struggles to remain happy. There’s also a lot of humour in the disfunctional family scenario. The second half, where the depression theme is explored in the metaphor of a planet named Melancholia on a collision course with the Earth, does drag.  Nevertheless, the ending is powerful and Dunst gets to deliver a brilliant line of dialogue: ‘The Earth is evil, we don’t need to grieve for it. Nobody will miss it.’ Thanks for that Lars von Trier you miserable sod.

Finally, I was really looking forward to the latest film that has come out from the trend in grindhouse revival cinema, Hobo with a Shotgun. It is certainly ultra-violent and ridiculous enough to tick all the boxes, but this homeless-exploitation film is a far cry from Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof and Robert Rodriguez’s Machete. The relentless and pointless sadism of the film left me cold and bored, which not even the presence of Rutger Hauer could cure.

MIFFhaps
I really had to bite my tongue while waiting for Three to start when I overheard a woman loudly complaining about ‘why do they need to play this doof doof music in the cinema before the film!’ The music that was being played was the soundtrack to Run Lola Run and since Three was the latest film by Tom Tykwer it made perfect sense to play it. Besides, it’s a bit of a stretch to describe that soundtrack as ‘doof doof’. Also, during an early funny scene in The King of Comedy, a guy came into the cinema late and tripped over just as the audience started laughing at something on screen. The timing was perfect.

Show us your MIFF
I made a new MIFF friend today when a mutual friend introduced me to Lauren Matthews, a political analyst, activist and card-maker  who is covering MIFF at the new stealingbeauty2011 blog. Lauren’s mother used to manage the Classic so cinema is in her blood. She’s seeing over 60 films at MIFF this year and has been attending the festival in some capacity every since she was 4-years-old. Appropriately her favourite film is Cinema Paradiso. She recommends the consumption of meal replacement bars as the key to surviving MIFF and is most looking forward to seeing Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place. Her biggest MIFFhap was discovering last year that Teenage Paparazzo filmmaker Adrian Grenier was nothing like his Entourage character Vincent Chase.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – Taxi Driver (1976)

4 July 2011

Taxi DriverIn 1983 director David Cronenberg curated a science fiction retrospective for the Toronto Film Festival and his provocative selections included Martin Scorsese’s 1976 masterpiece Taxi Driver. In the program notes Cronenberg explained this choice by describing Taxi Driver as:

[A] better Blade Runner than Blade Runner. New York is a nightmare LA/Tokyo of the future. De Niro is a sleepless alien who does a poor job as passing himself off as an earthling. He can’t really figure out human sexuality but he wants to get involved anyway. It doesn’t work.

It’s as good a reading of Taxi Driver as any since it captures the extent to which Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle character is something of an impressionable outsider in the urban jungle of New York. A Vietnam vet working long hours as a taxi driver due to his insomnia, Travis is a product, victim and observer of late 1970s America, but also a terrifying force of violence, determined to ‘wash all this scum off the streets’. Scorsese’s subjective camera follows Travis and his taxi through the streets of New York as he searches for a human connection, fails and then takes the role of a very confused avenging moral crusader, culminating in the film’s still shockingly violent ending.

Travis is locked in an infantile state that is suggested throughout Taxi Driver in his speech, limited comprehension and xenophobic curiosity/paranoia towards African Americans. Like so many soldiers trained to fight in Vietnam, as depicted over ten years later in Full Metal Jacket, he seems to have had his personality stripped away, leaving him as a blank slate with a simmering, barely repressed rage. In later scenes when he does give himself a purpose beyond mere existence, the ticking clock sound on the soundtrack is accentuated to mimic the sound of a time bomb.

Taxi Driver: Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro)

As the opening chords of Bernard Herrmann’s brilliant (and sadly final) score crescendo over the soundtrack during the opening of the film, we see Travis’s taxi emerge into the cinema frame out of a cloud of steam as if it is being born into the world of the film. Throughout the film Scorsese shoots both Travis and his yellow taxicab from every angle possible, ensuring all components of the man and the machine get their own close-up at least once. They are one and the same; cruising the less desirable parts of New York like a predatory animal and slowly being changed by the city. The taxi picks up dents from hurled objects and stains from the passengers in the back seat, Travis picks ups some disturbingly peculiar ideas about women.

Without any family of his own Travis searches for substitutes. Turning to the senior taxi driver Wizard (Peter Boyle) for some kind of fatherly advice turns out to be futile as all he gets is an almost comically useless pep talk. Travis projects purity upon Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), seeing her as a perfect woman who may be his lover and in Oedipal terms his substitute mother. Not long after the scene where Betsy spurns him Travis encounters a passenger (played by Scorsese) who delights in telling him about his intent to murder his cheating wife. Ever impressionable, Travis channels this misogynist fury into his feelings of rejection from Betsy and plans to hurt her by assassinating the politician (and alternate father figure) she is campaigning for. Finally, Travis encounters child-prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster) and this time takes on the role of protective father/potential lover towards her, which involves confronting her pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel), another father figure.

Taxi Driver: Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro)And what of the peculiar ending? Is it a cynical joke by Scorsese about how cinema celebrates the use of violence to restore order or is it a sort of delusion dream sequence where Travis imagines an idyllic outcome that vindicates his actions? The camera filming the haunting aerial shot over the room where Travis’s rampage ends then seems to float down the stairs of the building and out into the night as if his soul is departing. It’s a deliberately ambiguous ending, but the outcome is that the film ends with the audience in Travis’s world. A montage of shots of the city streets at night evoke his collapsed reality and the final sudden glare he gives to the camera suggests that wherever he is – in the physical or imagined world – he could snap at any moment.

An urban fusion of themes and images from the western, film noir and, if you agree with Cronenberg, science fiction, Taxi Driver is a brilliant study of alienation, obsession, paranoia and perverse desire.  There’s an undeniable power and grittiness that very few films have come close to capturing since. Perhaps it’s the dangerous vicarious and visceral thrills that Travis’s actions provide. Scorsese shows us the world through Travis’s eyes and like with Alex in A Clockwork Orange we rationally condemn such an unhinged individual who is all too ready to respond to the aggressive stimuli around him. However, once we’ve seen the world the way Travis sees it, on a purely emotive level there is something disturbingly seductive about God’s lonely man and his deranged crusade. In this regard Taxi Driver is dangerous cinema and it’s all the better for it.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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An interview with Kevin Powell, the son of director Michael Powell

3 April 2010

The Red Shoes

Directed by the legendary filmmaking partners Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, The Red Shoes is rightly hailed as the greatest film about dancing ever made. In conjunction with the release of the new 35mm restored print of The Red Shoes, I interviewed Kevin Powell, one of Michael Powell’s sons.

The following interview was recorded on Saturday 20 March 2010 and then played on The Casting Couch the following week.

http://www.cpod.org.au/download.php?id=3388

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Film review – Shutter Island (2010)

16 February 2010

Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio)

Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of the novel Shutter Island (by Mystic River and Gone, Baby, Gone author Dennis Lehane) is a film that operates on a heightened level that almost makes a traditional narrative analysis redundant. While the core story of two US Marshals in 1954 investigating the seemingly impossible disappearance of an escapee from an island based prison for the criminally insane is compelling, the film’s ultimate achievement is its manipulation of perception on a filmic level. Even elements that may trick the untrained eye and ear into thinking that they are experiencing a flawed film are deliberately calculated stylistic and narrative elements that only fully make sense after the final dénouement.

Scorsese has often displayed a subjective flair in his filmmaking particularly in early films such as Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. In Shutter Island he pushes this one step further by representing Shutter Island’s Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane as an almost other worldly place designed to snare and foil US Marshal Teddy Daniels. Played by Leonardo DiCaprio in one of his strongest performances to-date, Daniels is a classic melancholic masculine Scorsese protagonist. Daniels is haunted by the death of his wife and his experiences as a soldier liberating the Dachau concentration camp. He is unpredictable, volatile and easily provoked. Yet he also possesses aspects of Twin Peaks’s memorable Special Agent Dale Cooper character in that he has a brilliant investigative mind, he is intuitive and he seems to receive information about the case from his dreams.

Dr Cawley (Ben Kingsley), Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio)

While there are elements of Shutter Island that would not feel out of place in a David Lynch film, Scorsese’s real point-of-reference must surely be Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Scorsese may have even read Geoffrey Cocks’s book The Wolf at the Door where Cocks argues that the subtext of The Shining was the Holocaust. Not only does Scorsese use a lot of music by the Kubrick favoured composer György Ligeti but the use of sound, tracking shots and production design distinctively presents the Ashecliffe Hospital in a similar way to The Overlook Hotel in The Shining. Both are buildings filled with labyrinthine spaces that threaten to consume their occupants.

Shutter Island is the work of a true master who is completely accomplished in the art of filmmaking. It is apparent from almost the beginning of Shutter Island that there is something strange going on and the enjoyment is in the experience of watching it all unfold. Shutter Island is a film that leaves you feeling satisfied but during the end credits your brain will start to churn. As the film’s impact sinks deeper and deeper into your mind you will start to truly appreciate how ingenious it is on so many levels. An hour later you will be making plans to see it again.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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