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Retrospective: The Films Of Martin Scorsese

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist December 17, 2013 at 2:05PM

As a director Martin Scorsese ranks at the forefront of the all-time top tier of American filmmakers, but even as a presence in the film world in general he is pre-eminent. It is merely the just desserts of a life which, more than any we can think of, has been entirely dedicated, saturated and invigorated by cinema. For any of us who spend any portion of our days thinking about movies, Scorsese is, as much as we have one, a patron saint, perhaps the figure to whom the less Godly among us might whisper our evening prayers. Yet Scorsese also belies the directorial cliché of egotism, a Welles or a De Mille striding around with a bullhorn booming out orders to scuttling minions, because he has always been dinstictively softly if rapidly spoken, and thoughtful, especially when talking about cinema. Just to hear him talk about cinema is one of the great joys of the man. He is erudite, passionate and opinionated, with a film knowledge so vast that it’s hard to imagine where he ever found the time to make a single movie himself.
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The Last Temptation of Christ

The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988)
Brazenly controversial and still banned in several countries around the world, Scorsese’s reimagining of the last period of Jesus’ life, and of a hypothetical life beyond the crucifixion, is his most blatant attempt to contend with the issues of faith and doubt that his Catholic upbringing instilled in him. Famously at one stage wanting to be a priest, Scorsese instead pursued filmmaking with an almost religious zeal, but has frequently said that the mystery of the Passion and spirituality in general has never left him. It seems Marty works these mysteries through in his films rather than from the ambo, leading not only to ‘Temptation,’ but to “Kundun,” George Harrison documentary “Living in the Material World” and possibly to his next potential project, “Silence.” ‘Temptation’ is the first and most overt of these, portraying a doubting, often despairing Christ (Willem Dafoe) and reinterpreting Judas’ (an awkward Harvey Keitel) role as betraying him at Jesus’ behest. Most “blasphemously” (according to several Christian fundamentalist organizations which boycotted and protested the film, to the point of setting a Parisian theater on fire), Scorsese’s adaptation of the novel of the same name posits a scenario in which Jesus is rescued from the cross by his guardian angel, marries Mary Magdalene and after her death, marries Mary and Martha, having a family and living into old age. It is only on his deathbed that a visit from Judas reveals that the guardian angel had in fact been Satan in disguise, whereupon Jesus begs God’s forgiveness and is returned in near-ecstasy to the cross as a young man. So the ‘Temptation’ is in fact that of life as an ordinary man, outside of Messiah-dom and the whole last section works rather like a very sombre version of “It’s a Wonderful Life” as it’s implied that Jesus essentially hallucinates what his life would be like without the burden of being part of the Godhead. It’s weighty, heavy stuff and Scorsese spares none of its density, so the film is wordy and brimming with a sense of Catholic crisis. But it’s also very beautiful at times (the pared-back budget contributing to a spartan, impressionistic look complemented by washes of monochrome reds or yellows over the image) and Willem Dafoe is quite extraordinary as the tortured Son of God, along with an Oscar-nominated Barbara Hershey as a surprisingly realistic and sympathetic Mary Magdalene. There is nothing easy about ‘Temptation,’ nor should there be, and if it remains among Scorsese’s least approachable works, its complexity, enigmatic tone and troubled, questing thorniness are in this case, totally justified. [B]

Life Lessons

New York Stories” (1989) (segment: "Life Lessons")
Scorsese’s contribution to “New York Stories,” which also includes shorts by Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen, is the unquestionable champ among the trio. Sensual and uplifting via a keen musical selection (Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale”), Scorsese drops us into the life of shaggy-haired painter Lionel Dobie (Nick Nolte), his art, and Paulette (Rosanna Arquette), a former lover Lionel wishes to possess once again. It’s a character study immeasurably enlivened by Scorsese’s roving camera, mining crucial urgency when depicting Lionel’s creative process. Nolte delivers a typically gruff yet sensitive performance, making a louse of a man sympathetic, or at least relatable in his hearty pursuit of art and listless groping for the next ingénue to half-heartedly seduce. Lionel leaves his heart on the canvas and Scorsese poignantly illuminates the divide and the struggle. For those tested by runtimes, this short might be a proper antidote, an introduction to Scorsese that lures them to sample more significant works. [B]

Goodfellas Ray Liotta

Goodfellas” (1990)
Even among the very highest echelons of the canon of accepted film “classics,” there are gradations. Many films are undeniably great, but how often do we have a burning desire to rewatch them? Many others we’ll fight to death for, but can scoot past them when they show up late at night on cable. Amongst those, we’d even count some of our favorite Scorsese films: “Taxi Driver,” and “Raging Bull,” for example, are peerless classics, but there’s not a part of us that always wants to be watching them. Then there’s “Goodfellas”, which manages to do, for our money, everything that these other touchstones do, but also to be relentlessly, almost insolently entertaining: infinitely rewatchable, quotable and recommendable to old and young alike. Even broken up into its constituent parts the film is unassailable on so many levels: greatest ever Joe Pesci performance; ditto Ray Liotta; best-written voiceover; most dizzyingly inventive but apropos camerawork; sharpest script; the superlatives can go on. Adapted for screen by Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi, from Pileggi’s non-fiction book “Wise Guy,” “Goodfellas” is also so sharp and zingy in terms of how it bristles with its own manic energy that it’s maybe the fastest 2.5 hours you can spend at the movies. For the uninitiated (we can’t believe there are any, but still) the film is told through the eyes (and voice) of Henry Hill (Liotta) and charts his rise through the ranks of the local New York mob scene from his mid-fifties childhood (he’d “always wanted to be a gangster”) right up to his ignominious fade-out as “a schnook” in the early 80s, via violence, betrayal, coercion, murder, drugs, prison, adultery and the thinnest-sliced garlic ever captured on screen. It’s Scorsese and his cast firing on all cylinders and as sobering as the moral of the story may be, nothing can dampen the sheer joy in filmmaking that’s on display here: this is a film that would have been simply impossible from anyone who loved movies less. Yet despite all the quick edits, the freeze frames, the bravura long-takes, the detail-rich locations, despite the crazy skill and planning that had to have gone into its creation, the technique is somehow so completely transparent as to seem effortless and we are wholly immersed in a story of such gloriously gonzo excess that it seems to blast by on a cocaine high. If Scorsese had never made any other film, we’d follow him to the ends of the earth just for this one...Aaaand, now we have to watch it again. [A+]

Cape Fear

Cape Fear” (1991)
Looking back, it's kind of shocking that Scorsese, following the critical and commercial groundswell surrounding his virtuoso mob masterpiece "Goodfellas," would follow it up with "Cape Fear," a shlocky, B-grade chiller featuring frequent collaborator Robert De Niro at his all-time campiest (and sinewiest). Ostensibly a remake of the 1962 suspense film (original stars Gregory PeckRobert Mitchum and Martin Balsam all make appearances here), Steven Spielberg was originally attached to direct but at the last minute swapped projects with Scorsese (who awarded him "Schindler's List" instead), citing "Cape Fear"'s extreme violence, which Spielberg felt uncomfortable with. What we get is an elegant, gore-soaked pastiche that incorporates not only the original film (with the Bernard Hermann score lovingly reproduced by Elmer Bernstein) but elements from Alfred Hitchcock thrillers (complete with Saul Bass credit sequence), seventies exploitation movies (the Illeana Douglas rape sequence is blood-chilling) and, of course "Night of the Hunter" (De Niro is similarly tattooed). Although the movie runs slightly too long (the prolonged, hurricane-ravaged finale is overcooked to the point of limpness), it's at times one of the more exhilarating Scorsese experiences—a movie that knows exactly what it is and is having a blast with it. (It is also the inspiration for one of the best-ever episodes of "The Simpsons.") Anchored by fine performances (Nick Nolte was nominated for an Oscar, as was De Niro), breathtaking cinematography (and exemplary, subtle work by Industrial Light & Magic) and a willingness to gleefully sail over-the-top, "Cape Fear" is, first and foremost, pretty much fearless. [B]

The Age Of Innocence

The Age Of Innocence” (1993)
A film we should confess we weren’t overly enamored of when we first saw it, a recent rewatch of “The Age of Innocence” has led us to at least a partial reappraisal. It is, as we had remembered, sumptuously beautiful and if some of the principals feel miscast, it doesn’t stop them from turning in individually impressive performances, especially in Michelle Pfeiffer’s case. And the settings and supporting cast, including Joanne Woodward’s drily ironic reading of swathes of the source Edith Wharton prose, are all deliciously on-point as the rarefied world of upper class 1870s New York gradually closes in on poor, lovestruck but noble Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis). But still, a certain narrative thinness makes itself felt—the film feels stretched out unnecessarily and, for a world with so many secrets and trapdoors, strangely lacking in subtext. And without those layers, Pfeiffer, Winona Ryder as May Welland and Day-Lewis seem rather exposed, having to manufacture emotional engagement where none springs up naturally. In fact, Day-Lewis’ Archer, if anything, is so distant as to not really register with us at all, and his illicit passion for Pfeiffer’s Ellen too often communicated repetitiously by him hissing some new entreaty or assignation at her from behind a curtain or a doorway. But elements of Scorsese’s filmmaking enthusiasm do find their way through: he plays with iris-ins and wipes and vignetting the edge of the frame at times to give it a kind of classic, almost silent-movie feel, and special mention should go to Saul and Elaine Bass’ credit sequence, which, set against a lace-overlaid backdrop of time-lapse flowers bursting into bloom, manages to be exactly as lushly romantic and yet arch as Wharton’s original book. It’s a line the film in general walks only unsteadily, but if the result is neither as broad nor as deep as Scorsese at his best, there is still a great deal to enjoy here, just don’t expect to be fully enraptured by the romance or fully tickled by the social satire. [B-]

This article is related to: Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street , Hugo, George Harrison: Living in the Material World, Public Speaking, Taxi Driver, GoodFellas, Mean Streets, Retrospective, Features, Feature


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