Tag Archives: Scorsese

Joker

3 Oct

‘Joker’: Phoenix tries to hold it all together, but eventually film lets loose, breaks down

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Throughout Batman’s long history, the Joker’s been played by some pretty mighty performers. Standouts include Jack Nicholson, who pretty much hijacked Tim Burton’s “Batman” (1989), and Heath Ledger, who won a bittersweet, posthumous Oscar for his deeply felt portrait of derangement in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” (2008) – and let’s not forget the comic genius of Cesar Romero during the 1960s TV series. Nolan and Burton felt like the right hands to shepherd a dark superhero/villain origins tale, but Todd Phillips, with such swinging steak comedies as “Old School” (2003) and the “Hangover” films to his credit? Odd as it may seem, it’s a somewhat logical evolution from drunken vomit awakenings to blood-splattered foyers with a panicked dwarf who can’t reach a chain bolt to escape.

The real reason Phillips’ “Joker” succeeds is simple: Joaquin Phoenix makes the anti-antihero psycho-saga all his own. There’s also the script by Phillips and Scott Silver that plays with the Batman mythology artfully without getting bogged down in the bigger picture – though we do briefly see Bruce Wayne at a young age, when dad and mom are with us – but without Phoenix, I don’t think “Joker” takes flight. It’s a bravura go, and Phoenix should be right up there at year’s end (like Ledger was) with Brad Pitt and Leo DiCaprio when Oscar nods are called out. With maybe the exception of Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” (2000) it’s hard to find a movie in which Phoenix doesn’t shine with brilliant quirk and dour doses of menace. He delivers all that here and more; it’s a total immersion. For the part of clown turned Gotham icon and sociopathic perp, Phoenix lost a ton of weight, something done with equal austerity by Christian Bale (who took up the bat cowl for Nolan) in Brad Anderson’s “The Machinist” (2004) or, inversely, when Robert De Niro added 50 pounds as Jack LaMotta in “Raging Bull” – and if as on cue (send in the clowns), the Martin Scorsese-forged actor shows up in “Joker” as beloved late night TV show host Murray Franklin, whom Arthur Fleck (the Joker’s birth name) and his not-quite-all-there mother (Frances Conroy, excellent in the small complicated part) watch religiously. Continue reading

First Reformed

26 May

‘First Reformed’: The reverend is in torment in a ‘Taxi Driver’ for a newly tormented era

 

In two of Martin Scorsese’s career-defining films – “Taxi Driver” (1976) and “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988) – the protagonists (cab driver Travis Bickle and Jesus) are souls in torment and on the cusp of greater things that, to varying degrees, shift the civilized world as we know it. Both were written by Paul Schrader, a Calvinist-raised midwesterner who’s regularly shown himself a master as writer (“Raging Bull”) but something of a tormented soul himself as a director. With early hits such as “Blue Collar” (1978), “American Gigolo” (1980) and “Cat People” (1982) and intermittent wonders thereafter – “Affliction” (1997) and “Auto Focus” (2002) – Schrader has more recently scored a series of miscues – “The Canyons” (2013) and “Dog Eat Dog” (2016) – that have tanked critically and gone to the secondary market without the dignity of a theatrical release.

The good news is that Schrader’s latest, “First Reformed,” is something of a resurrection for the 71-year-old filmmaker, and an apt one; it revolves around a soul arguably more anguished than Christ or Bickle. The object of the title is a small, upstate New York church on the eve of its 250th anniversary. Tending to its diminishing flock is a reverend by the name of Ernst Toller (played with perfect restraint by Ethan Hawke, delivering his best work since “Training Day”) who’s clearly more lost spiritually than any of his flock. We learn early on that in the near recent past he’s lost his son to the war, and his wife abandoned him in the aftermath. Toller remains composed at the dais, but behind rectory doors he’s washed out, rueful and barely able to find solace at the bottom of a glass of bourbon. Smartly, he keeps the bottle hidden, but higher-ups at the parent parish (played with power and concern by Cedric the Entertainer) ultimately suss him out. How Toller finds redemption comes initially through purpose, when pregnant young parishioner Mary (Amanda Seyfried) asks him to counsel her troubled husband, who spouts eco-terrorism mantras and conspiracy theories – nothing like a drowning man trying to save another going under – and later, in the discovery of a suicide vest. Continue reading

Live by Night

14 Jan

Affleck Should Have Stuck To Directing For His Latest Boston-Based Film ‘Live By Night’

Ben Affleck, as Joe Coughlin, and Sienna Miller, as Emma Gould, in "Live By Night." (Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures)

Ben Affleck, the good-looking, locally-reared actor, who from time to time has projected a wooden on-screen presence, has turned out to be a reliably decent director. His debut, “Gone Baby Gone” back in 2007, transformed Dennis Lehane’s Boston-seated crime novel into a cinematic pulp noir. That edgy effort had cinephiles anxious for more and Affleck rewarded their patience with another gritty crime drama, “The Town,” in 2010 and then “Argo” in 2012. His latest effort, “Live By Night,” brings another Lehane crime story to the screen.

It begins during the Prohibition Era in Boston, where the Irish and Italians are locked in a blood feud over the bootleg trade, and later transitions to Ybor City, the developing section of Tampa, Florida, where Italian and Latino crime coalitions govern the town and control the flow of molasses — critical for rum.

Brendan Gleeson as Officer Thomas Coughlin in "Live By Night." (Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures)
Brendan Gleeson as Officer Thomas Coughlin in “Live By Night.” (Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures) Continue reading

The Wolf of Wall Street

26 Dec

‘The Wolf of Wall Street’: greed, lust, envy, hubris in Scorsese’s best since ‘Goodfellas’

By Tom Meek
December 25, 2013

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“The Wolf of Wall Street” is everything “American Hustle” wanted to be and more. It’s smart, mean and makes a pointed political statement while rolling in the excess of its characters. As far as drama goes, let’s face it, rags to riches and success isn’t so alluring. No one wants to see a nice guy make it – they want to see someone claw their way up, live large and fall hard. Look at “Scarface,” “Goodfellas” or “Wall Street” to name a few. “Wolf” and “Hustle” are less violent and black and white, but the elements of greed, lust, envy and hubris are all there in fine, fermented form.

122513i The Wolf of Wall Street

The two films too are based on true stories and take place in New York City during high-flying eras that predate cellphones and the Internet. “Hustle” jogs through the Abscam scandal of the 1970s via a petty con who, ensnared by the feds, helps draw in corrupt pols. “Wolf” is smaller fare, following the hilariously self-destructive travails of a hungry wannabe who, from humble origins, gets his brokerage license on the eve of the Black Friday market crash of 1987 and instead of cashing out and moving on to something more surefooted, goes on to parlay his smooth cold-calling skills into a pump-and-dump scheme, manipulating the penny stock market and making a killing on the 50 percent commissions. The sad underlying truth to “Wolf,” as wonderfully articulated by an over-the-top broker (a blazing Matthew McConaughey, adding to his banner year) teaching the naive “Wolf” pup the ropes over a five-martini lunch, is that money in motion is change in your pocket. Always be selling and always be buying; forget about value added. If money is made, good, but it’s all about movement.  Continue reading